movie reviews

‘The Zone of Interest’ review: Beyond the banality of evil

Lé Baltar

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

‘The Zone of Interest’ review: Beyond the banality of evil

A24's YouTube channel

Shrewd and clinical, 'The Zone of Interest' locates this thin line between the past and the present.

Spoilers ahead.

Fixating on absence and presence is a convenient entry point in examining any cinematic work, for the task, through this lens, then becomes undemanding, provided that the critic only ever points out what is there and what is not there in the work, forgoing any attempt at discernment.

But in the case of The Zone of Interest, the latest film by Jonathan Glazer, that entry point, rigid as it may seem, gives way to a more thoughtful process of interrogation, more frames with which we make sense of our viewing experiences and possibly even the very lives we lead. Such is the case chiefly because the film, adapted from the 2014 novel by Martin Amis, forces us to probe what Glazer reveals and obscures, every expansion and ellipsis he takes, and how it all coheres into something beyond narrative function. And the precision of Glazer’s treatment affords the viewer a true yet unsettling space for contemplation and feeling.

The film begins the same way it ends, with a harrowing overture set against a pitch-black screen. This score by Mica Levi claws throughout the film, as if a warning or a dirge. At some point, it sounds like a memory dying, forever lost in the ravages of time. This, however, is a complete contrast to the first image that graces the screen, as the foreboding audio tempers into the chirping of birds populating the forest by the riverbank, where a family gathers for a picnic and a lovely swim. It’s a sparkling day for Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the head of the family and longtime commandant at Auschwitz; his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller); and their five children. As revealed later on, the family lives in an Edenic property that borders the concentration camp’s walls, which easily stick out with its barbed wire and the clouds of smoke obscuring the view.

These characters are not born out of sheer imagination. Commanding the Auschwitz death camp from 1940 to 1945, Rudolf, alongside his family, did live in a fancy villa near the place of the carnage, known as the Interessengebiet or “interest zone,” handing the film not only its title but also its history. 

Like their real-life counterparts, Rudolf carefully reviews his plans to speed up his usual quota of dead Jews, while Hedwig runs the house and cultivates her garden of flowers and beehives, also tended by slave laborers, who largely exist in the background. We see the children enjoy the pool, which boasts its own slide. We see the family go rowing and fishing, hold tea parties, and eat cake. We see the patriarch tenderly lull his child to sleep. We see the dog running freely around the house.

Yet, from a close distance, we hear the gunfire, the muffled screams, the roar of the gas chambers, the signally haunting sounds of warm lives reduced to mere carbon, all the hurt distilled into a hum. At one point, one of the Höss children even mistakes the pleas of the inmates for the sound of a traveling heron. It’s like Ilya Kaminsky’s We Lived Happily During the War, rendered in sharp, frank detail.

Glazer, with his intricately composed framing, surveys these sheltered, quotidian lives not only to show us the glaring irony that punctuates the film but for us to realize that these monsters are not mythical inventions; that they do not stop at being villains; that reality is complex. But at the same time, he asserts that our fidelity to justice and remembrance must always be certain; well-defined.

Integral to making this point is how Glazer implores us to focus on what is not visually present in the film, to reject what our sight initially dictates, to pay more thoughtful attention to the soundscape, for it maps a better understanding of the work. In the film, the director is very much intentional in depicting Holocaust atrocities only within earshot. And to see it as mere “background noise,” as The Times critic Manohla Dargis argues, is a dreadful misreading.

If anything, Glazer does not sideline the carnage, and instead highlights it by wielding the film’s sound as a unit that not only substantiates its visuals and confirms what we already know as an audience, but as something that disrupts the very lives of its characters, thus exhibiting how the intangibles have tangible repercussions, like how Hedwig’s mother has trouble sleeping because of the noise and decides to leave the house later on.

The effect is a soundscape that operates as something almost separate from the film, or at least subverts our idea of what the film is, like some sort of retro-engineering. What is essential is indeed invisible to the eye. We do not see the cruelty, but we know that it is very much present at every turn. We do not have to witness the violence to understand what it entails. And sometimes, as the film suggests, that is how we shape genuine empathy.

Parallel to how the sound collages act like an unseen yet terrifying creature in the film, there is a crippling bleakness that permeates The Zone of Interest, especially in terms of how Glazer experiments with the form. There is a moment when he points the camera at the radiant lilacs, until such beauty bleeds into singular violence. Over the course of the film, Glazer also inserts thermal, monochromatic images of a local girl, who at nightfall secrets apples for the Jewish captives forced to work in the camps. And the trepidation in these scenes is heightened by the chilling score, which also serves as the film’s way to warp its own notion of placidity.

Nearly every review of The Zone of Interest zeroes in on the banality of evil outlined in the film, with critics dwelling on the proximity of tragedy to seemingly ordinary, domestic lives. It is of course a sound reading of the film, but what is often left out of the discussion is how the film’s staying power is sharpened by the milieu in which it is produced.

At the 2024 Oscars, Glazer, upon receiving the award for Best International Feature, delivered a powerful speech, addressing the ongoing genocide in Palestine by the Israeli occupation, while hundreds of protesters gathered south of the Dolby Theater, where the awarding ceremony was held, with calls like “No awards amid a genocide.” 

“All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present – not to say, ‘Look what they did then,’ rather, ‘Look what we do now.’ Our film shows where dehumanization leads, at its worst. It shaped all of our past and present,” Glazer said. 

That Oscar speech quickly became the center of controversy, prompting Hollywood creatives to release a statement refuting what Glazer said and, in the process, failing to recognize the Zionist ambitions of Israel, which began decades earlier and has since taken thousands of lives away.

If the audience knows where to look, they’d realize that what Israel is doing now chillingly parallels the way the Höss family conduct themselves, in the film and in real life. Distraught by the news that her husband earns a promotion, which meant moving to another site, Hedwig gets rattled, afraid of the possibility that she might have to abandon this beautiful, gardened life she’s been tending all this time. “This is our Lebensraum,” she tells Rudolf. Lebensraum, which translates to “living space,” is the very concept that inspired Nazi Germany to unjustly expand its territories and initiate the Second World War. 

In another scene, Hedwig, while touring her mother, shares that the entire lot where the house and the fancy pool stand used to be a field, exposing the settler-colonist mindset that her character embodies, and how she casually views it, as though the plundering equates to saving a barren land. So it is no surprise that she desperately holds on to this sophisticated yet fragile veneer in the same way that Israel is bent on crossing all lines to justify its existence.

The endnote says it all. On the stairs, we see the Nazi commandant, after a series of mysterious retching, gazing into the dark, consuming abyss. Then it suddenly cuts to the present-day Auschwitz museum. We see the staff cleaning what used to be a gas chamber. They tidy the place and ready it for opening. Exhibited in the halls and corridors are reminders of the atrocities: piles of shoes, crutches, clothes, faces of the victims. Then it cuts back to Rudolf’s gaze, and it’s as if he’s peering directly into our souls. We will learn, the gaze seems to suggest, but look at where we are now. Shrewd and clinical, The Zone of Interest locates this thin line between the past and the present. –

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Accessories, Glasses, Face


Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.