The film is inspired by, rather than an actual adaptation of, Martin Amis' troubling novel of the same name. Glazer strips away Amis' fictionalising to give us the stark truth of the Auschwitz concentration camp, informed by years of research and access to the site's archives. His film is actually filmed on location, with a replica of the camp Commandant's house built a few hundred yards from the original. There is a deeply authentic and disturbing sense of being in the presence of banal evil - in the landscape we have seen so many times in documentaries and in testimony from SHOAH.
The power of this film lies, I think, in the way in which it is meticulously constructed and the conceptual choices made by Glazer. The film is best described as working on three levels at once: the visual story; the sound design; and the score.
The first level is the visual story. This is almost entirely that of the Hoess family with much of the action taking place in their house, breaking only as Rudolf is sent to Berlin for a temporary reassignment. We are ensconced in the every day rhythms of the family - kids getting ready for school or playing in the pool - mother tending to her beloved garden or gossiping with her friends - servants laying the table. As Hedwig Hoess' mother arrives for a visit we realise just how well this working class couple has done under the Nazi regime. The daughter of a cleaner is now the matriarch in a luxurious villa, with servants, mink coats, jewels. Hedwig has her pick of the luxury items stolen from Jews and despite a rather provincial ugly look clearly has a liking for finery. As for Rudolf he is what his children claimed - a loving father with a fondness of horses. They swim in the lake and paddle in their canoe.
All of this is depicted with a natural casualness and intimacy that is afforded by strong performances from Christian Friedel (Babylon Berlin) as Rudolf and Sandra Hueller (TONI ERDMANN) as Hedwig. These performances are also enabled by a novel system of fixed cameras that allowed the performers to move through the villa more freely and stay in the moment.
The key point of the visual narrative that we see the camp walls and the chimneys and the endless smoke but we never actually see the horrors behind those walls. (As such, this film would work well as a companion piece to the similarly formally audacious and haunting SAUL FIA.) This gives the film a kind of deliberate claustrophobia and a tension born of a false division between the idyllic family life and its surroundings. Indeed, the only time we break away from the perspective of the Hoess family is when Glazer uses thermal imaging to show a little Polish girl - almost like the heroine of a fairy tale - leaving a trail of apples and pears for the prisoners in the camp at night. It's as if her innate humanity and goodness can only be shown as the negative of the Nazi evil that we see in broad daylight.
This fake isolation is corrected by the second layer or element of the film which is Johnnie Burn's sound design. Because while we may not see the camp and its victims explicitly, we hear them constantly. We hear the rumble of trains arriving and the screams of families being separated. We hear gunshots and horses rearing and panicked people. Most horrifyingly, we hear the incinerators burn. To be fair we also see this in our peripheral vision - the orange lights at night as another selection is made. And we see the impact of this sound - of this actual immersion in murder - on the family. One of the daughters sleep walks. The mother-in-law comes to visit and then flees, unable to stomach the sounds and smell of burning. Rudolf, we later find, has some kind of stomach problem. And even if his conscious mind does not acknowledge the horror, his body is revolting against it. Strangely, it is only the wife Hedwig who seems to exhibit no horror, who is only angry when she thinks she might have to leave "this paradise".
So we have the visual story of what is happening with the family - and then we have the sound design telling us what is happening just outside of our vision. Both of these are scrupulously real and researched and cognitively dissonant. It's the dissonance that makes the film so hard to watch and so haunting. The third element of this astounding film is Mica Levi's score. This can only be described as the element that gives us the emotional response to the dissonance - to the truth of Auschwitz and of Hoess descending the final staircase into immorality. It's a score like something out of a horror film, or how one might imagine Dante's Inferno to sound. It's aurally invasive and unreal and abstract and in some ways cathartic. Amidst this gentle family life, and off-screen constant rumbling machinery of murder, we need something that sounds like, and allows us, to scream in horror.
Part of me wishes Glazer had not broken our entrapment in this nightmare to show us footage of the modern Auschwitz museum. I feel the film may have worked better to not give us that escape, rather to mire us in hell. But this choice does not undercut just what a monumental achievement of cinema this film is. It is by far the most formally brave, and provocative film I have seen this year.
THE ZONE OF INTEREST has a running time of 106 minutes. It played Cannes 2023 where Mica Levi won the Soundtrack Award, Jonathan Glazer won the FIPRESCI prize and the Grand Prize of the festival. It also played Toronto, Telluride and London 2023. It opens in the USA on December 15th