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26 January 2024

The Zone of Interest is a Holocaust film like no other

Jonathan Glazer’s astonishing adaptation of Martin Amis’s novel is the antidote to Schindler’s List.

By David Sexton

The Zone of Interest shares its title with Martin Amis’s 2014 novel set in Auschwitz but little else. It is not an adaptation of the book, in which three different narrators – the oafish camp commandant, Paul Doll; a sly Nazi officer, Thomsen; and a Sonderkommando, Szmul – reveal themselves in their own words, in a grotesque story about Thomsen lusting after Doll’s strapping wife, Hannah.

When this novel appeared, I thought it lamentable, an inappropriate transfer of Amis’s gift for knockabout low-life comedy to this terrible context. What could Jonathan Glazer, the genius director of Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin, have found in it to film? Almost nothing is the answer, except the original inspiration to make a movie not about the victims of Auschwitz but about the perpetrators, notably its actual commandant, Rudolf Höss, and his family.

Glazer speaks about his debt to Amis tactfully and generously, saying, “The book gave me the courage to portray the executioners as utterly normal people.” But he acknowledges that as he started to research the real man, the more he started “moving towards the real history as opposed to the fictionalised version”.

It’s the real version we have, realised with astonishing rigour and originality. There is almost no plot. We watch the daily life of Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their five children, in their big comfortable house with a garden that actually abuts the camp wall, almost as voyeurs. The effect is “Big Brother in the Nazi house”, says Glazer.

Höss’s house was painstakingly recreated on the soil of Auschwitz, along with the garden they so relished. Glazer devised a radical method of filming there, using multiple hidden surveillance cameras, while he and the crew absented themselves from the set, giving an effect of authorless objectivity, almost anthropological observation. Glazer thus avoids aestheticising their lives, as would be inevitable if choices of angles and lighting were being made. “I wasn’t interested in their dramas. I just wanted to watch them in as unimpeded a way as possible to see how they behaved and acted, to see who they were.”

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[See also: The sexual revolution that failed]

We see Höss celebrating his birthday. We see him carefully locking up the house and extinguishing the lights at night. We see Höss and Hedwig in separate beds, chatting and giggling together. We see her showing the children the flowers. We see him taking a meeting about a more efficient design for the continuous running of the crematoria (“burn, cool, unload, reload”). We see Hedwig proudly showing her mother how well she has done, property-wise. “It’s a paradise garden,” her mother says. “Rudi calls me the Queen of Auschwitz,” she replies. They laugh.

The one moment of drama comes when Höss tells Hedwig that he is being transferred closer to Berlin to head up all camps. Hedwig is outraged and refuses to leave (a real scene that was witnessed by one of their gardeners). “They’d have to drag me out of here,” she shouts. “This is our home; we’re living how we dreamed.”

We do not see inside the camp itself. But we hear it all the time. The Zone of Interest is in effect two films: one seen, one heard. We descend into this world through a blast of sound, against a long-held dark screen, by the composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin). Throughout the domestic scenes there is a horrific soundtrack of noises from the camp, the roaring of the fires, the puffing of trains, rumblings, clankings and grindings, the barking of dogs, the shouting of orders, gunfire, the screams of the dying. Orchestrated by sound designer Johnnie Burn, these recordings are apparently real but repurposed. The effect is crushing.

This is a treatment of the Holocaust like no other. It leaves you feeling both utter dismay and your own implication alongside the perpetrators, rather than the victims. In this, it fulfils the ideas put forward by the philosopher Gillian Rose in the 1990s (though Glazer only came across her work in post-production). Rose criticised the “Holocaust piety” that allowed audiences for films such as Schindler’s List to identify with the victims and fail to realise they might have something in common with the perpetrators. She proposed a film be made putting us alongside a member of the SS instead. “Instead of emerging with sentimental tears which leave us emotionally and politically intact, we emerge with the dry eyes of a deep grief which belongs to the recognition of our ineluctable grounding in the norms of the emotional and political culture represented.” That’s this film precisely – its great achievement.

“The Zone of Interest” is in cinemas now

[See also: How Japan’s wartime history haunts its popular culture]

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State