Friday, February 9, 2024

The Zone of Interest: A Review



How does evil grow? Quite easily. We, separated by almost eighty years from the barbarism of the Holocaust, can ask how it could have happened. The Zone of Interest lays out a very chilling answer: quite easily, without a second thought. 

Rudolph Hoss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) and their children live what appear to be idyllic lives. They have a pleasant home, complete with a large garden that Hedwig lovingly tends to; there is even a swimming pool and hothouse for their comforts. They have a few people serving them. Even better for Rudolph, his work is literally a few paces away, the facility just behind their garden wall.

That facility just happens to be Auschwitz, where the smoke from the crematoriums is never ending. The sound of shootings, screams and trains are quite audible, but they do not disturb the Hoss family home. They are not oblivious or even perhaps indifferent to the sights and sounds of the death camp. They just happen to live beside them. Sure, human ashes may suddenly emerge onto the river while Hoss is fishing and his kids are swimming. This, however, is more an irritant than a horror, a sign of ineptness rather than cruelty.

Hedwig is not pleased to learn that Rudolph has been given a promotion that might mean leaving their home. She pushes him to at first fight the promotion, taking up to Hitler if need be. Rudolph at least gets the High Command to allow Hedwig and their children to stay in their lovely home. More good news comes his way when he is allowed back to Auschwitz to head his own operation to transport more people there. There is a celebration for the upcoming operation. Calling Hedwig afterwards, he tells her he was too distracted by wondering how he would gas those attending the event to notice the elegant surroundings. In a flashforward, we see Rudolph descend down a flight of stairs while the sight of the current Auschwitz is seen being readied for that day's visitors. Rudolph continues his descent into darkness.

The Zone of Interest brings to mind the familiar quote from Hannah Arendt about the "banality of evil"; when she covered the trial of Adolph Eichmann, one of the creators of the Final Solution. We see that the Hoss family and those friends that drop in are not oblivious to what is going on next door. Far from it: they are fully aware, to where Hedwig's mother wonders if the woman whose house she cleaned is in the camp. She, however, can comment only on how she lost the chance to get her Jewish employer's curtains when she was first sent to the ghetto.

The Hoss family, in fact all those who worked for the Third Reich, have accepted the barbarism of the Shoah that they have successfully dehumanized and "othered" all those who are not like them. Early on, one of Hedwig's friends remarks on a beautiful coat that belonged to "a Jewess". Never did any of them ask or care about that woman's fate. They instead focused on how said "Jewess" was half their size, meaning it required alteration. Near the end of The Zone of Interest, Hedwig snaps at one of the camp slaves who works for her, "I could have my husband spread your ashes across the area". It is chillingly reminiscent of when slaveholders would threaten to sell their slaves down river, a reminder of who was in control. I do not think, as I said, that the people here were oblivious but disinterested, the process of dehumanization complete. 

Director/screenwriter Jonathan Glazer, adapting Martin Amis' novel, takes its time revealing horrors behind the mundane façade. Apart from a few camp prisoners who serve as the Hoss' de facto slaves, we never see inside Auschwitz itself. We hear the sounds of gunfire, of screams, but The Zone of Interest is not about what went on inside the death camp. It is interested in how seemingly normal, even pleasant, people could or would continue life while serving mass murder on a satanic level. 

This is what makes The Zone of Interest so effective: it presents us with a cold, dispassionate view of how monstrosity and inhumanity can be so routine. The Hoss family is not presented as raging antisemites or psychotic fanatics. They are presented as what they are: ordinary people who have not so much compartmentalized the horror they benefit from as accepted it as the natural course of things. 

The performances are equally straightforward, making things more horrifying. Friedel's Rudolph is coldly effective. Seeing him rationally look over plans to have gas chambers and crematoriums run 24/7 is horrifying in its simplicity.  Huller reveals Hedwig to be a hausfrau who focuses on her family and the creature comforts her husband's job has provided. She is also a super-bitch, putting her own interests ahead of everything else. 

That she could discuss her wish to return to Italy for a vacation as people are being slaughtered makes things more grotesque. Yet that is the point of The Zone of Interest, to show how "good people" can not just accept but live comfortably aside unspeakable horrors with no concept that what they are doing is wrong.

If there are flaws to The Zone of Interest, it may be that it sometimes takes a too artistic take on things. The film opens with perhaps excessively creepy music from Mica Levi and has an almost painfully long black screen that makes on wonder if the film will ever start. The end, with a sudden shift to the present-day at the Auschwitz Museum as Rudolph metaphorically looks on, is a bit much. 

On the whole, The Zone of Interest is a chilling portrait of how comfortable people can be with evil. When people ask how such horrors as the Shoah or slavery happen, The Zone of Interest shows that it can happen because good people are fine with it so long as they do not think on it. Slaveowners and people like the Hoss family worked with evil because they did not see it as evil. "We're living how we dreamed we lived", Hedwig states when Rudolph tells her they might have to move. Traits like human venality, indifference and indoctrination have plagued mankind since time began. The sad truth revealed in The Zone of Interest is that the Holocaust was not a true aberration of the human condition, merely the most extreme variation of it.     

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