Make no mistake – Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is a brutal movie to endure.
The Cannes Grand Prix and FIPRESCI prize-winning film (2023) compels and draws you into Rudolf Höss’ (Christian Freidel) story. Set in 1943, Höss is the commandant at Auschwitz, seeking an idyllic piece of heaven while the hell he reigns over brims on the other side of a white cinder block wall. Glazer makes an intentional point in framing the story from Höss’ viewpoint – it is easy to blame someone for doing their job when it capitalizes on their skill sets; it does not make them any less human. As an audience, we do not have to like the protagonist’s actions, nor even agree with them.
In thinking about The Zone of Interest, you might recall Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, a personal favorite. The Zone of Interest strikes a similar chord for differing reasons.
Glazer’s eye shows that even a man like Rudolf Höss can fall victim to his beliefs and mission. The character derives satisfaction from his drive toward efficiency and his family. This weaving of unwavering devotion intersects with his wife’s beliefs. Hedwig, played by a diabolically fantastic Sandra Hüller, is as disconcerting as Rudolf, even more so. Rudolf can keep his family near him in his post as the commandant. One feels that Rudolf wouldn’t have the idyllic isle in the middle of a panacea without Hedwig, a terrible woman of privilege and a stark reminder of the effort being driven from Berlin. Hedwig pushes Rudolf in the strictest sense.
Rudolf’s aim is achieving efficiency, with Freidel stoically playing that aspect to its logical conclusion as his efforts are constantly rewarded. With each passing commission to a new assignment, Rudolf is pulled farther from his family, grafting a wider emotional gulf between husband and wife. The characters are despicable, to be sure, but the courage to play them shows the candor and the values with which Freidel and Hüller perform their roles.
Reward, efficiency, and an ever-increasing gulf between husband and wife, between duty and privilege, Glazer paints a horrifying picture; The Zone of Interest is an endurance test as much for its characters as it is for a modern audience, one that would very easily find a yardarm, plant it in the middle of Höss’ paradise and see him promptly pay for his crimes. However, the physical characterizations are only half of the experience.
Sound is a significant part of Glazer’s intent – the horror of what happens on the other side of the fence permeates the air, children fluttering about the property, and gardens being tended to. More importantly, Mica Levi’s haunting score brings to the forefront of your mind whether a jump scare or an actual human horror story awaits you. Levi’s score becomes both as it ingratiates itself with the experience. That ingratiating feeling might put some off from the movie. However, it only adds to the darkness inherent in the story. Levi’s score is intentionally unsettling.
We feel no excitement for Rudolf when he eventually returns to his post and family; he is, however, a changed man. At his moral center is the efficiency for which we’ve come to know him. Glazer injects a stunning reversal of fortune on Rudolf in the latter half of the story, not out of spite or malice but out of practicality and efficiency, out of necessity.
Loosely based on Martin Amis’ novel of the same name, The Zone of Interest, at least in Glazer‘s eye, reflects upon Milton’s sentiment, namely the quote, “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Rudolf’s efficiency ensured his place in hell, but if not for his striking endurance as a man of efficiency, had he not engendered the trust of the wrong people, he might have been able to choose the latter. History hasn’t been very kind to efforts such as his, and rightfully so, that burden is not his alone. The human interest in telling the story from Rudolf’s perspective suggests that some choices are made for us based on our unique skill sets amidst the ever-changing political landscape.
The Zone of Interest engrosses its audience in an experience we could not endure ourselves. It challenges us to look at the other side of the equation, and whether we accept it or dismiss it, we cannot deny its power, making its way into one of the Top 10 Films for 2023.