They don’t listen to the voices.
Do they hear them? Of course they do. But they don’t listen to the abrupt cries, whistle and groan of trains, crack of gunfire, hooves of horses, shouts, ominous, intermittent uproar, so far away, so close. Daddy’s got a job. Mommy’s got a household.
The synopsis from the distributor is as simple and direct as a placard next to a painting in a gallery, indicating the barest of bones of domestic drama: “The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his wife Hedwig, strive to build a dream life for their family in a house and garden next to the camp.”
“The Zone Of Interest” opens on black with an overture by Mica Levi: a chorus of moans upraised, a cry tonight, resounding with portent. The sound design (by Johnnie Burn) and the bookends of score (by Levi) are “alarm bells, walls shaking, a call to arms, a surfacing” to writer-director Jonathan Glazer.
Life in the Höss household seems placid, pleasant, even, in their suburban abode near a river and a forest, their prisoner-nurtured garden right up against the walls of Auschwitz—”a few herbs, rosemary, beetroot. This is fennel,” Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) says, tenderly brushing the growth. “Would you like to smell a rose?” It’s the banality of banality of banality, transacted beside the low and chatter of genocidal industry next door.
A garden gate, one that formally demarcates what lies beyond: wire-banded walls, a factory, a tower with presently mute chimney. It’s only a few steps for Rudi (Christian Friedel) from home to horror. The parable resounds: We build our garden walls, we build them to keep ourselves in as much as others out.
Pleasant days, perfect days, a vision of domesticity, bees alight, and only meters away, another gust of flame, a bloom of smoke, the dull roar over the way.
Writer-director Glazer’s work is ambient, perhaps even seeking the molecular—what mites, what motes, what moments? What seeps into the bloodstream, courses within the soul? Do we close off unpleasantness as with thick blackout curtains?
The Höss family is grasping quietly, fervently an enviable domestic life they are passively yet vividly living. There are comforts to be had and held. (Hedwig makes Rudi promise they will return to a special spa for “all that pampering.”)
Hate simmers. Hedwig hates her help, the Jewish slave girls, one of whom Rudi uses offscreen. Early on, Hedwig adopts a lush fur from a recent arrival. She finds a red lipstick from the true owner in the pocket of her fresh possession. Hedwig flinches slightly at its touch, then applies it. A moment. We hear two dull reports in the near distance. Glazer cuts with the steely gore of the dialectic of sound versus image.
Rudi worries he may be promoted and transferred, he’s so very good at his work, making murder more mass through clever design: “Efficiency! The envy of CEOs across the land,” a fellow Nazi commandant says admiringly as he brandishes plans for improved, less costly incineration. They pore over renderings for an atrocity to come, the oblivion of days beyond the curtained room. (An additional horror is knowing no horror can rise in the narrative to break or smite the couple. They had years to come! Höss wasn’t hanged until 1947.)
Dearly intending not to be dislodged, Hedwig snaps at a servant girl, “I could have my husband spread your ashes across the fields of Babice!” These are hideous thoughts spat out of smallest spite; this is the common malice humming beneath the barrier they’ve erected against their proximity to the grinding handiwork of genocide. (Rudi matches that, calling home from a Nazi celebration, “I was thinking how I’d gas them all” but “the ceilings are too high.”)
In the garden—her longed-for paradise—Hedwig says proudly but amused, “Rudi calls me the queen of Auschwitz.” (Scream, smoke, smoke. Screammm. So near, so faraway.) Their hound can tell a thing or two is amiss. Pacing, rounding. The actors work from calm, surfaces, withholding emotion. The dog cannot.
How does an artist accommodate abomination? The filmmakers spent years finding a vocabulary, a voice of indirection, as László Nemes did with “Son of Saul,” (2015), where he keeps to the back, the shoulder, of his kapo protagonist scuttling in a camp, the rest of the world, its relentless terrors, occluded with blur.
“The Zone Of Interest,” by design, is akin to an installation. The images (shot by Lukasz Zal, designed by Chris Oddy) are precise, always from a fair distance, hardly ever in motion, poised with exquisite lassitude. Glazer embedded cameras in the home, didn’t mount lights or pose reflectors. The natural light is dimmed, spare, clean. The settings are lean. The images are ordinary, yes, but also painterly. There is a regular, if eccentric rhythm of cutting as they move from room to room. It’s a similar effect to latter-day surveillance cameras, but it is also another way of flattening their world.
Fragrance, scents, linger, pass: “Would you like to smell a rose?”
In the final movement of “The Zone of Interest,” which is more installation than customary drama already, Glazer smashes tense, moving from fiction to documentary, but with the same metronomic illusion of dispassion as before. We see the camp prepared by cleaners for its day and its visitors, tidied and vacuumed and made ready for its next witnesses moving past vitrines of evidence, of mounds of shoes, of stacks of luggage. The museum’s sanitation is exacted for another day.
Glazer, when his third feature “Under the Skin” was released in 2014—after “Sexy Beast” (2001) and “Birth” (2004)—expressed his awe to me at how cinema can be both banal and wondrous. “Sometimes the clearer something is, the more mysterious it is, actually. There are films I love that are made by filmmakers that made… Fassbinder made god knows how many? Fifty films, fifty-five films? [Forty, maybe?] Forty films. I’ve seen as many as I can manage to get my hands on, probably most of them. You watch them like pages of a diary, really. Those films were there because that is how he felt. He was on planet Earth, and this was his experience of being on planet Earth. I wish that’s the way I could just roll it out back-to-back like that. I don’t seem to be able to do that. People talk about a box set of ‘The Wire’ or ‘Breaking Bad,’ my box sets are Fassbinder, and I will watch them back-to-back. And the impact is absolutely extraordinary.”
“The Zone of Interest” opens Friday, January 12.