There are some films you can never completely get out of your head. The reasons why vary hugely, but those that take up permanent residence are few and far between. The latest addition to this select company is a haunting film where what we can’t see and what we imagine takes precedence over what we’re shown on screen. And what secures it in your mind is the knowledge that it is based on fact.
Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone Of Interest is set in mid-1940s Germany. We’re invited inside the dream home of a military officer’s family. They have servants, they enjoy swimming and fishing in the local countryside and the garden next to the house is the wife’s pride and joy. But the house is surrounded by a high, barbed wired wall, separating them from the buildings on the other side. The tops of those buildings are visible, as is a tall chimney, but everything else is hidden. There is a connection between the family and its unseen neighbours. The family’s father, Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel), is the commandant of Auschwitz.
While both we and the family don’t see what happens on the other side of the wall, we certainly hear it: the shouts, the screams, the gunshots, the barking dogs. But the commandant, his houseproud wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) and their children are completely oblivious. There’s no blink of an eye, no gesture, not even the slightest twitch of a muscle to indicate that any of it has registered. Even when that tall chimney belches black smoke high into the air, nobody notices, nor does what must be the most pungent and horrific of smells seem to reach their nostrils. Their immunity to what is clearly happening in such proximity is bad enough, but what makes it so chilling is that it’s a deliberate and unquestioning choice. On the surface, the commandant and his wife appear to be perfect parents: devoted, protective, wanting the best for their children and giving them a comfortable life. Their family values are spotless – except for the indelible blot on their idyllic landscape, the thing they refuse to recognize and which is pure poison.
Their complicity exemplifies what is often referred to as the banality of evil. They are, essentially, just another family, but they’ve accepted the Nazi regime and created a privileged life for themselves as a result. The cost of their comfort is incalculable. Glazer allows us into their lives as if we were yet another guest at one of their regular house parties, events masterminded by Hedwig in her capacity as unofficial “Queen of Auschwitz”, a title to make your blood run cold. And, while we watch as the children splash around in the swimming pool and the adults enjoy copious spreads of traditional German fare, all those sounds from over the wall continue. They’re reinforced by a wonderful score from Mica Levi, music punctuated by menacing, profound noises which drawn from the dread and gloom beneath this imitation of happy family life.
Already a director with a reputation for the striking and the original – Sexy Beast, Under The Skin – Glazer has excelled himself with this clinical yet shattering dissection of the Holocaust. Gone are the tropes usually associated with the genre, to be replaced by a re-imagining that chills to the bone and acts as a constant reminder of how quickly and easily people can be swept along in such circumstances – at any time. That the audience sit in silence as the credits roll is a tribute to the film. It’s his masterpiece.
In UK cinemas February 2nd / Christian Friedel, Sandra Huller, Freya Kreutzkam and Ralph Herforth / Dir: Jonathan Glazer / A24 / 12A