Every holocaust movie is inherently shocking. No film concerning one of the vilest blemishes in human history will be easy to watch. The more we see graphic imagery, though, the easier it is for some viewers to become desensitized. The Zone of Interest isn’t about what the audience sees, but rather, what they hear and what the characters choose to ignore. Imagine a household with their heads in the sand as unspeakable evil takes place next door. Now imagine if instead of sand, it’s freshly cut grass in a beautiful garden. Director Jonathan Glazer and cinematographer Łukasz Żal paint an idyllic portrait of domestic life, making the subtext all the more disturbing.
The film immediately immerses us into an almost Eden-esque landscape where Commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their children are living the dream. When the family isn’t frolicking in the lake, they’re smelling the flowers in the garden that Hedwig has poured her soul into. Of course, it’s debatable if Hedwig or anyone else in this family possesses a soul. Adjacent to the dreamhouse is Auschwitz where Rudolf works. Cries and gunfire can regularly be heard from over the wall. The Höss family merely views this as an inconvenience, as if the concentration camp was a noisy freeway or train track.
The Zone of Interest isn’t about a family that comes to comes to recognize the atrocities taking place. There are a handful of characters who possess basic human decency. When night falls, a local Polish girl leaves food for prisoners at their work sites. Hedwig’s mother might not speak out against the neighboring injustice, but there are only so many screams she can bear to hear before leaving. Through the central Höss family, though, Glazer captures the two driving forces behind the holocaust: evil, which is a given, and indifference, a facet that’s often overlooked.
When people think of sound design in film, action-heavy extravaganzas often come to mind. Johnnie Burn demonstrates the true power of the craft here. Whether it’s a quick gunshot or a drawn-out shout, Burn makes us feel the impact of every death without revealing the victims. Other than a few close-ups of flowers, The Zone of Interest is primarily presented through wide shots. It almost feels like a Jacques Tati picture, but with none of the playful energy. Żal nonetheless populates almost every frame with something visually pleasing, which ominously contrasts everything we hear. It’s astonishing how much a mute button can change one’s viewing experience.
Glazer’s film is at its most effective when it focuses on the mundane nature of the Höss’ day-to-day lives. Oddly, when a more traditional narrative begins to take shape, our interest begins to dwindle. A subplot involving Rudolf receiving a promotion slows the momentum down, although it still ties into the themes at play. Regardless, The Zone of Interest might’ve been even more powerful as a dialogue-free picture with Burn’s sound design saying so much more than words. These minor qualms aside, Glazer has made one of the most unique and haunting films about the holocaust, showing that there’s still much to say about the subject. The minute we stop talking about it, the more inclined we’ll be to make the same mistakes.