The Zone of Interest

The Zone of Interest (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

By: Adam Freed

The Höss family perches on the idyllic banks of the Sola River, basking in the summer sun.  A picturesque memory in the Polish countryside.  Finally, Rudolf and Hedwig have found their small slice of paradise in which to raise their idyllic German family burdened by a life away from their homeland.  Bestowed with a beautiful home, a kaleidoscopic rainbow garden of flowers, and even a swimming pool with a slide, luxury was a term befitting their situation. When added to the dutiful house staff and endless horseback riding trails traversing the Sola Valley, life is comfortable for the Höss family in pastoral Poland.  Comfortable, so long as they only train their view to the east. 

For when glancing to the west there stands on the border of their serene existence an ivy covered wall, fifteen feet high, permitting only a limited view of the smokestacks and tiled roofs of what appear to be military style living quarters next door. Auschwitz.  The Höss family’s luxurious life is lived in juxtaposition to one of the most historically charged and volatile words to find purchase through linguistic eternity.  Commandant Rudolf Höss of Auschwitz willingly accepted a career transfer, an assignment to Poland to join the ranks of the most feared and infamous murderers in human history.  It is on the grounds of this historic heartbreak that Jonathan Glazer weaves his devastatingly captivating film The Zone of Interest.    

Referring to a forty kilometer swath of Poland in which Nazi rule intended to execute what they would one day call Hitler’s “final solution,” the film’s title is a crafty nod to its central theme, the normalization of atrocity motivated by personal gain.  Through the use of mitigated phraseology and a deliberate disregard for human empathy, Hedwig Höss, played with a chilling stoicism by Sandra Hüller, views Auschwitz as a fertile ground for her personal procurement.  Obtaining furs, silk blouses and jewelry that her husband brings home “from work” Hedwig becomes accustomed to a lavish lifestyle, one that she refuses to relinquish.  Using words like “sacrifice” and “birthright” with no hint of self condemnation, is enough to set audiences aflame in a vitriolic rage. 

Behind the dark and emotionless shark's eyes of Rudolf Höss is German actor Christian Friedel, a soul tortured by his decision to accept the role of a man who governs his murder factory with a banker’s eye.  Efficiency, effectiveness and a data driven approach are what elevate Rudolf Höss to commandant of Auschwitz.  Capturing the essence of his evil yet only witnessing his deeds on the homefront, proves a delicately layered dynamic within Friedel’s memorable performance.  In 1943 Hitler’s “final solution” would eventually name Höss as tip of the Nazi spear and through orders from Reichsfürer Heinrich Himmler to enact “Operation Höss” the extermination of 430,000 Hungarian Jews by way of gas chamber. 

Jonathan Glazer’s film is meticulous in its conveyance of the way the Höss family lives.  It is at the command of a calculated filmmaker that the beauty of the Höss home life and the depth of their delusion can live together on screen.  There are no visual details conveyed as to the atrocities taking place next door. Unlike Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), The Zone of Interest needs no shock or awe.  Credit to Jonathan Glazer who clearly makes the artistic decision to omit many of the excruciating realities of Auschwitz, in favor of allowing pointed allusion and prior audience knowledge to fill the gaps.    

With each meticulous and stunningly captured detail, an abundance of audience rage wells from within.  A desperate helplessness will consume theater goers this December, a feeling that will be mitigated by a deep appreciation for this skill with which such a complex story is told. Each idyllic family moment captured in summer’s vibrancy is funded with the emotional currency of the monochromatic death chambers lurking beyond the wall.  The confluence of emotional intersections are overwhelming.  Audiences witness innocent children playing and enjoying life as they should, while simultaneously being privy to the atrocities through which those familial bonds grow.  There is no intended sympathy for Commandant Höss or for his dark hearted wife who callously bear witness to the extinguishing of millions of lives.  There should be, however, an incredible outpouring of support and praise for director Jonathan Glazer and  for Christian Friedel, whose courage and aptitude bring to life a lens through which the world has not seen this infamous period in global history.  The Zone of Interest is without question one of the year’s finest films, and through the course of time may earn its rank amongst the greatest historical dramas ever made.

The Zone of Interest was screened in conjunction with Movie Archer’s coverage of the 59th Annual Chicago Film Festival.  The Zone of Interest releases December 15.

Target Score: 9/10 - Jonathan Glazer chooses an incredibly delicate and poignant lens through which to view the atrocities of Auschwitz.  In his portrayal of Commandant Rudolf Höss, Christian Friedel marks a career apex that will certainly gain the attention of Academy voters.  The Zone of Interest is a powerhouse film that will both enrage and engage audiences in equal proportion.