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The Zone of Interest
U.S.A./U.K./Poland 2023

Opening 29 Feb 2024

Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Writing credits: Martin Amis, Jonathan Glazer
Principal actors: Sandra Hüller, Christian Friedel, Freya Kreutzkam, Ralph Herforth, Max Beck

Jonathan Glazer’s skillfulness as writer-director (Sexy Beast, 2000, Birth, 2004, Under the Skin, 2013) is auspicious in this penetrating mosaic of the Hitler/Nazi legacy. Mindful of unfathomable grotesqueness’ and in tandem with cinematographer Lukasz Zal’s astute choices of lenses, framing and shots, The Zone of Interest is loosely based on Martin Amis’s eponymous novel.

Set in 1943, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) is Schutzstaffel (SS) Lieutenant Colonel Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. His family’s villa shares a high, razor-wire topped wall with the camp with its extermination oven. Moving from the mundane to the remarkable, Zal saves closeups for vividly blooming flowers in Hedwig Hoss’s (Sandra Hüller) enviable garden, and for Höss’ head in profile in a low-angle shot with billowing dark smoke and swelling oven rumblings in the background.

A lingering opening shot idealizes picnicking amid nature’s lakeside beauty, fathers and sons swimming and mothers and daughters berry picking—the Höss family and friends, before driving into a summer night’s tranquility. Rudolf turns off lights going upstairs to bedtime stories and reminiscing with Hedwig accompanied by cricket concerts, owl hoots. Daylight introduces routines: ample, ready-made staff for yard and household work (Medusa Knopf, Zuzanna Kobiela); “nanny” Sophia (Stephanie Petrowitz) herds Claus (Johann Karthaus) the eldest and a bully, Heidetraut (Lilli Falk), Hans (Luis Noah Witte) and Inge-Brigitt (Nele Ahrensmeier) to school; Mutti tours her garden with baby Annagret (Cecylia Pękala, Anastazja Drobniak, Kalman Wilson).

A certain tension accompanies Commandant Höss accepting birthday salutations, horseback riding to work, dictating in his home office, meeting businessmen pitching a bigger, better crematorium. Hedwig blasély gossips with friends over coffee as staff work, she gardens, directs/chastises staff, chooses high-end goods confiscated from prisoners. Momma’s (Imogen Kogge) visit and praise, “You truly landed on your feet, my child,” prompts Hedwig unashamed bragging; days later Momma slinks off before breakfast, and Hedwig burns her left-behind letter. Condemning the Höss’s paradise is verboten.

Glaser’s screenplay parallels Rudolf Höss’ real life in the abstract, e.g., his Berlin reassignment, the Hungarian visit. The film shifts with the fairytales—the last, most obvious tale is Hänsel und Gretel. Using the interesting negative film effect, a little girl’s (nebulous) movements leave audiences none the wiser. Chris Oddy, production design, Joanna Kus and Katarzyna Sikora, art direction/set design, and costume designer Malgorzata Karpiuk’s collaboration create an atmospheric discordance generated by what is on the other side of that wall.

Zal’s omniscient camera never peeks across the concrete wall, Paul Watts’s precise editing prevents it. Instead, Maximilian Behrens, sound editor and Johnnie Burn, sound design, open imaginative vistas that Mica Levi’s music infuses with swoops of emotional highs, lows, and even indifference to remind audiences of humanity’s dereliction of duty. That is the hard, dispassionate probe Glazer’s screenplay posits into one’s choices, the repercussions. Winner of the Grand Prix and FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes Film Festival, 2023, The Zone of Interest has five Academy Award 2024 nominations. (Marinell Haegelin)

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