“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
That quote from philosopher Friedrich Nietzche has been interpreted in a myriad of ways since the nihilist academic first wrote it in 1888, and clearly struck a chord for British director Jonathan Glazer, who explored an alien’s birth from darkness into humanity and back again in his sci-fi horror avant-garde masterpiece Under The Skin in 2014, and nine years later he has returned to that very darkness and stays there in The Zone of Interest. Glazer’s adaptation of the Martin Amis novel of the same name asks a lot of its audience, but despite that remains a film with a watching experience unequaled by any other release in 2023, and a harrowing visit to a family with an outwardly unassuming appearance masking their part in creating hell on earth.
The titular zone of interest within the narrative of this film is Germany-occupied Poland circa-1943, where Nazi Commandant Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel) tries to build an idyllic life for himself, his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller), and their two sons Claus and Hans (Johann Karthaus and Luis Noah Witte), two daughters Inge-Brigitt and Heideraud (Nele Ahrensmeier and Lilli Falk), and infant Annegret through his work at the Auschwitz concentration camp, with which his family’s dream house shares a wall.
Hedwig spends the days tending to her beautiful garden of azaleas, vegetables and herbs while Rudolf balances his fatherly duties like taking the children swimming with a quiet bureaucratic war against his superiors who want to transfer him away from his family to a town on the outskirts of Berlin upon his promotion to deputy inspector of all concentration camps. But that is menial compared to the atrocities happening to the Jews imprisoned just over the wall from their personal paradise.
In a recent interview on the Dolby Institute Podcast, Jonathan Glazer said there are two films going on in The Zone of Interest, “the one that you see and the one that you hear.” The latter is especially haunting solely for the unforgivable acts of brutality, which can be heard in every scene from every room in the Hoss’ manor through unsettling sound design. Petrified screams, psychotic German orders and incendiary gunshots from over the barbed wire-topped wall are realistically created and constant yet well spaced out not only to assure viewers that they are hearing sinister monstrosities from afar, but also to imagine said acts for themselves.
These are paired with pulsing rumble that only makes its presence felt during scenes in the Hoss estate where Rudolf and his family can’t hear it but we can as their guests. But another element of the film’s aural achievement is a score from Mica Levi that admittedly only amounts to fifteen minutes of music, but makes an unforgettable mark by bookending The Zone of Interest first with an eerie overture over a black screen that disquiets spectators with distorted, deep ambient noises at war with soothing synths akin to an artificial lullaby, and then a chilling piece over the end credits made from sounds so indescribable, it must be heard to be believed.
The film that we see within The Zone Of Interest, however, makes the Hoss family’s humble abode look tranquil despite the tragedy on which it’s built despite muted color grading. Meticulous shot compositions make Hedwig’s garden appear as tall in stature as the wall separating themselves from the ugly genocide, while Rudolf observes his children and relatives having a field day in his backyard from afar, as a line of smoke speeds across the horizon from a train carrying Jews to the death camp next door.
The Zone Of Interest is nowhere near as graphic as your average narrative about the Holocaust, however, despite sporadic instances of visible horror like a Nazi officer briefly washing blood from his boots. Glazer lets the audio department do the heavy lifting in communicating the Nazis’ heinousness as aforementioned, but his directorial approach of juxtaposing tormentous sound design with images framed so that we are flies on the proverbial wall of this Nazi family’s utopic daily life makes moviegoers into observers of evil incarnate, and gives them space to meditate over what they would do when confronted by it, what was at the root of the Nazi’s drive to kill over six million Jews eighty-plus years ago, and how can this family live with the awful sights, sounds and smells of the death camp next to them?
This type of experience will be understandably tough for audiences not eager for heavy material, let alone one that challenges what we expect from cinema. The world the Hoss family creates for themselves is so peaceful and idyllic that viewers may give themselves a mental reminder that Rudolf and Hedwig are not the heroes of this story and did not deserve the life they had. This mental war against the standards of narrative filmmaking can be taxing to the point of emotional exhaustion, and even heartbreaking when sounds from the camp are loud enough to unsettle the baby of the Hoss family to the point of crying.
So how does one justify a recommendation for something as difficult to watch as Glazer’s latest film? As tough as it is to watch, The Zone Of Interest remains one of the most important and seminal films to come out this year for its existence as a study of human complicity, and a way for us to examine the full extent of our ally ship amongst the oppression in today’s world; putting spectators in the shoes of the self-proclaimed innocent bystanders who knew something atrocious was happening but neither said nor did anything and asks us why. This critic mentioned that the titular zone of interest in the narrative of this devastating masterpiece was in the Nazi family. But for Glazer and curious moviegoers looking for a challenge, it’s something more profound, terrifying and universal in the undeniability of their existence.
It’s the darkest depths of our soul.