The Zone of Interest, the new film from Under the Skin director Jonathan Glazer, is one of 2023’s most difficult films. It’s also one of its best and most essential. The film seems implicitly obsessed with the question of what it really meant to be complicit in the worst crimes of the Nazi war machine. The effect, if you can stomach it, is a film that depicts the evils at the heart of the Holocaust as clearly and plainly as any movie ever has.
The Zone of Interest is set mere feet from the walls of Auschwitz, at the home of commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his family. The movie focuses on how they build their life on their small estate, with its fancy house and Mrs. Höss’ (Sandra Hüller) carefully curated garden. Meanwhile, the walls of the concentration camp, with its horrible sounds and billowing smoke, are close behind them.
This is a decidedly different kind of Holocaust movie than almost any ever made. Glazer’s camera never goes inside the camp, or shows the prisoners huddled there, or observes their actual fates. Rudolf makes a point of taking his boots off outside and letting a maid wash the blood off them, rather than tracking it inside his home.
This approach may sound like it sidelines the tragedy and horror of the Holocaust, centering the story on the culprits rather than the victims. And it’s true that Glazer’s film relies heavily on extratextual knowledge and awareness to carry viewers’ understanding of the events actually seen on screen. But Glazer’s carefully measured detachment lets the situation speak for itself. The knowledge that the audience carries about the Holocaust gives meaning to the things we don’t see play out. It’s a difficult and arguably dangerous approach, but Glazer handles it with care, never letting viewers forget what’s happening nearby.
The atrocities of the Holocaust surround the film, just like they surround the family. We don’t see the camp, but the sounds of it are all-encompassing, blaring just beneath the everyday sounds in the rest of the movie. They’re like a thick fog that permeates the family’s weightless domestic concerns, making the evil they’re complicit in inescapable. Death and its noises are ever-present but never acknowledged, shrouding the nearly meaningless events on the screen.
The whir and drone of machinery underscores some of the film’s quietest moments of dialogue, while gunshots and screams punctuate and underscore characters’ conversations. Those sounds are never used to emphasize individual events in the characters’ lives; they’re entirely unrelated. At one point, when Rudolf’s wife is trying out a new lipstick, found inside the pocket of a new fur coat delivered to her straight from the camp, we hear the sound of someone being whipped.
All of this is achieved brilliantly by the film’s two separate audio tracks. One is the Höss family, effectively the soundtrack of the movie we’re watching. The second is the sound of the camp, in all its horror, recreated with painstaking accuracy. Neither track is directly connected to or influenced by the other, allowing them to underline each other freely.
The movie clues us into all this the way a musical tells us to take our seats: with an overture. The Zone of Interest starts with several uninterrupted minutes of Mica Levi’s haunting score floating across a static title card. It’s transportive, pulling the audience along to the mindset it needs them to be in for the film. But more importantly, it’s instructive: a warning that often during this film, listening may be more important than watching. The overture ends with a loud staccato blast, not of the gunfire that punctuates much of the rest of the movie, but of birds chirping during a sunny family picnic by a river.
It’s tranquil, quiet, peaceful, and instantly wrong. The serenity feels counter to the setting. But this uneasy tension between the standard beats of a Holocaust movie and what The Zone of Interest actually shows us is also instructive.
The film constantly feels like it’s going to burst with the sheer weight of its unseen horrors. And Glazer does allow brief moments of true atrocity to puncture through, for instance in a scene where Rudolf, while fishing in a river with his kids, realizes that waste from the camp is being dumped in that river upstream, bones and all.
But Glazer never allows these moments to take over the movie, outside of a particularly poignant ending moment where reality and history cut through the story for an instant. Instead, he leaves them as momentary asides, speed bumps that do nothing to dampen the characters’ indifferent worldview, which all adds to the uneasiness that the movie creates.
The Zone of Interest’s effectiveness is drawn from all this contradiction. There’s a limit to the power of depicting violence on screen. No matter how carefully or truly it’s shown, the artifice eventually shows through, and the sense of fiction sets in. But by taking away the spectacle of violence, Glazer’s film shows another side of one of history’s greatest atrocities. The scale of the human catastrophe sets in not because it’s represented, but because the characters don’t seem to notice it at all. There’s no way to communicate the true tragedy or monstrousness of a camp where the Nazi regime killed more than 1 million people. But by underlining the carelessness and deliberate ignorance of the people around it, Glazer finds a way to make it even clearer what kind of evil it took to keep a place like that running.
The Zone of Interest may be the most powerful movie about complicity that’s ever been made, particularly about the Holocaust. The movie’s true warning isn’t that regular life can go on even amid atrocity, it’s that people are capable of pretending that atrocity isn’t happening. Glazer seems to suggest that people aren’t unaware of destructive historical events going on around them, but rather that they actively close their ears to it. The Höss family doesn’t drown out the camp, or begrudgingly ignore the roar of its furnaces or the gunshots from over the wall. They just keep going like it isn’t there at all. The effect of all their silence is one of the loudest and most unique views a film has ever taken on one of history’s most horrific atrocities.
The Zone of Interest debuts in American theaters in limited theatrical release on Dec. 15, with a wider American release on Jan. 7, 2024, and an international release in February 2024. See the film’s website for theater and ticketing details.