Movie review: The Zone Of Interest

The banality of evil

I went to see the Oscar-nominated film The Zone Of Interest. It’s based on Martin Amis’s 2014 novel of the same name. It starts mundanely with a family, a couple with five children and a dog, out on a picnic by the river. They return to their pleasant home with a lovely garden, a greenhouse, and a pool. They must be well-to-do, as they have a few servants, at least one of them a young Jewish woman.

The father has a few of his work colleagues stop over to discuss plans… to build a more efficient way to incinerate people, a technological marvel.

Oh. The father is Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and he is the commandant of Auschwitz. And it’s not as though the camp was a distance away.  As Vox noted: “There’s an ambient noise in The Zone of Interest, akin to the hum of a white noise machine — except in this case, it’s omnipresent, the sound of furnaces in the distance, laced with occasional gunshots and howls.” The wall is almost always visible, with occasional plumes of smoke lofting into the sky. “To hear what’s going on in the house, we have to tune them out a little.”

Domestic bliss

The household’s mother, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), is well aware that the niceties she acquires used to belong to someone else, someone imprisoned or, more likely, dead. She leans into being the self-designated Queen of Auschwitz, so she is not unaware of her husband’s job.

I saw this movie at Landmark’s Spectrum 8 theater on Saturday afternoon, January 26. Two folks I knew from church happened to be there. One thought they’d wasted two hours of their life. The other got the gist of it, though they and I were confused by one particular effect. After the lights came up, the five folks sitting behind me remained in their seats as though they were still trying to discern what they had just seen.

When I say not much happens in the film, especially in the beginning, it’s not a criticism but a fact. Then, Rudolf is so efficient at work that he’s designated for a possible promotion, which leads to an astonishing conversation with Hedwig. This is the “banality of evil” writ large.

The music throughout is haunting.

Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it a 92% positive review, though audiences were only 79% enthusiastic. A positive review by Robin Holabird: “I watched the movie with interest—not pleasure, but with appreciation for the point and risk it takes.” Edwin Arnaudin, conversely, writes dismissively, “Well, that’s certainly one way to tell a Holocaust narrative.” I get both POVs.

This was interesting: “Director Jonathan Glazer used up to five fixed cameras in the house and garden with no visible crew to capture many scenes, so the actors didn’t know if they were being shot in a close-up or wide shot. They were totally immersed in the scene and enjoyed working in that realistic environment.”

I admired the film. I don’t think LIKING it is entirely possible.

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