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The Zone of Interest ★★★★



Director: Johnathan Glazer

Cast: Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller

Released: Cannes Film Festival 2023

A happy, healthy German family, enjoying picnics by the river, swimming, celebrating birthdays, eating cake, the mother delighting in the flowers and vegetables growing in her garden, gossiping with friends. Jonathan Glazer’s loose adaptation of a novel by the late Martin Amis leisurely and carefully paints an idyllic picture of Teutonic life in the mid-20th century at the start of his exquisitely framed film.

But we have already been given a clue of darker things with the blank, slate grey screen that first appears for what seems an ordinately long time. The score, by Mica Levi, too, pumps up a sense of foreboding; something ominous is coming. Then slowly, through carelessly uttered lines and small images, we begin to understand.

The father of the family, Rudolph Hoss (Christian Friedel), is a Nazi comandante overseeing the ‘project’ at Auschwitz. The lovely home the family inhabit is a wall away from the concentration camp itself, where his office is. They are literally neighbours of the men, women and children being sent to their death in the now infamous gas ovens. We discover this through sights and sounds that don’t fit with the comfortable family life on display – distant screams, gunshots, barked instructions to get in line, human bones in the river while the family is swimming, items of clothing from the inmates coming into the house, from which the family and staff pick what they like. It is as if the other side of the wall is an entire world away, which, in many respects, it is.

The book had a romantic affair between the Nazi commandment and another officer’s wife at its centre. The film doesn’t. It focuses on everyday family life; the wife’s desire to remain in the comfortable home she has created where inmates from the camp tend to her well-cultivated garden, the spousal disagreements about whether the whole family should move with him when Hoss is posted to another placement, the problems with a sleepwalking child, the banal, everyday tasks such as ensuring the doors and windows are locked at night. Sandra Hüller is excellent as the wife of Hoss, efficiently keeping the household going while seemingly coldly oblivious to what is happening on her doorstep.

The horrors over the wall are not shown makes it all the more powerful. Visually the scenes of family life are light, colour and tranquillity. References to what is happening over the wall, via the story of Hansel and Gretel, in which Gretel saves her brother and shoves the wicked witch in an oven, are a foreboding black and white. The story has little dramatic action and little evident emotion from the characters. Everything is orderly and restrained; the family members are primarily reserved, stoic, and just doing their business. If anyone has misgivings about what is going on over the wall, they leave it unsaid.

Only at the end, as Hoss looks down the long corridors of the camp, do we get a glimpse of remorse. A premonition of how history will judge his actions? A brief flirtation with his conscience? We see, too, briefly, modern-day Auschwitz, where, years later, cleaners tidy the same corridors for visitors, and we see the awful remnants of his work.

The Zone of Interest is a film that’s hard to love but easy to admire. It may well walk away with awards at Cannes and later during awards season.

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