A Holocaust drama like no other, The Zone of Interest is perhaps the most chillingly detached film in cinema history. Writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s long-awaited follow-up to 2013’s Under the Skin is a tale of terrifying apathy told from an icy remove, such that distance—between us and what’s on screen; between its characters’ daily lives and what’s taking place right next door; and between humanity and inhumanity—proves both central to its m.o. as well as its primary subject. It’s a WWII horror story rooted in separation, alienation and a cold indifference that shakes one to the very core.
A loose adaptation of Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name, The Zone of Interest (showing at this year’s New York Film Festival) is the cinematic embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” detailing the everyday affairs of Auschwitz concentration camp commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Anatomy of a Fall’s Sandra Hüller), and their bustling brood, all of whom reside in a prim and proper abode located directly on the other side of the infamous death house’s wall. Theirs is a placid life filled with birthday celebrations for Rudolf, get-togethers between Hedwig and other Nazi wives, and children playing in an expansive yard marked by a large greenhouse and a swimming pool with a slide. When Hedwig’s mother visits the clan, she’s naturally impressed by the fruits of their success, evidence of which is everywhere, from their fine drinkware and handsome bedrooms to their doting servants.
What’s also apparent from the outset of The Zone of Interest is that the Höss family exists under the literal shadow of Auschwitz’s dormitories, crematoriums and attendant smokestacks, from which fire and smoke constantly emanate. Glazer shoots his material with deep-focus flatness, the result being a visual dullness that keeps the action at arms’ length, as if viewed through a microscope (or from the heavens). The director makes sure the Hösses are close enough to be studied but he refuses to empathetically engage with them; his compositions habitually foreground bland negative space and situate his characters deep and small in the frame. Disconnection is omnipresent and oppressive, creating a figurative chasm that’s at once unnerving and, in a certain sense, reassuring, given that, while the Höss’ pitiless behavior may be fascinating, it’s best spied from a ways away.