Genre: Drama and War Running Time: 1 hr. 45 min.
Release Date: December 15th, 2023 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Jonathan Glazer Actors: Christian Friedel, Sandra Huller, Stephanie Petrowitz, Zuzanna Kobiela
t opens with one of the longest, dullest, most pointless title sequences imaginable (it feels as if more than a minute elapses before the title graphics finally fade away – and even this is followed by another several minutes of blackness, music, whispers, and birds chirping, as if delaying actual storytelling is the point). It then proceeds with this unhurried, unfocused, almost uninterested, observational design, merely watching characters enjoy a spell on the beach, equally without purposeful plotting. It’s like a documentary in these initial minutes, but without much of a subject; a family is simply passing the time.
Of course, there is an idea to all of this, but the distant, removed style stays, as a birthday gift is given to Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel), whose family gathers round, speaking over one another and with background noises regularly drowning out the specifics of conversations (not unlike many of Robert Altman’s works). Wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) receives deliveries, puts on makeup, and plays with her toddler, while designating tasks to various staff members who collect groceries, clean, and tend to household routines. The lives of this group are exceptionally commonplace.
However, as much as the picture attempts to dwell on an utter normalcy – one so unexceptional that it’s altogether glaring – it’s startling when shots ring out in the background. The plainness of the Hoss family is immediately horrifying when juxtaposed with the time period and the meaning behind the gunfire: this is a house bordering on the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. In an instant, the mundanity is petrifying, especially when a group of Nazi officers discusses the efficiency of a new crematorium that burns on one side while the adjacent chambers cool for ash to be removed and bodies reloaded continuously – or when human remains are spread as fertilizer; or when a youth tinkers with toys as people are murdered outside his window; or when the children play with gold teeth, whose former owners have met a terrible fate. The casualness in which atrocities are discussed or witnessed – or ignored – is the intent. Can life be typical, or can it be approached in a traditional fashion, with the Holocaust as a backdrop? The disassociations and the blind eyes are damning, though writer/director Jonathan Glazer offers little perspective, opting instead merely to gaze.
Every action is drawn out, with the camera lingering long after the central figures have ceased being important; yet these frequent, lengthy respites grow haunting once the era and the players are apparent. Women having coffee and gossiping; Hedwig and her children weeding the garden or playing in a lake as Rudolf fishes; a grandmother arriving for a visit and chatting on a patio; or the quiet patriarch having a smoke alone or traversing the house to turn off lights are all workaday customs. What was downright bland becomes absolutely appalling, not for the endeavors themselves but for the surroundings.
“To have all this. You really have landed on your feet.” In the middle of it all is a massive, gorgeous garden, overflowing with blooming flowers and fresh vegetables, with the sun shining and bees buzzing as children play and create holiday memories. The ironic commentary and the stark contrasts are both mesmerizing and disturbing. It’s quite blatant (perhaps too much so), with numerous reiterations on the notion that death and destruction are occurring just on the other side of a wall, thinly veiled by lush vines and towering sunflowers. Hell exists mere inches away from paradise; unimaginable despair couldn’t be closer to an Eden-like happiness. To Huller’s credit, she’s almost sympathetic when she pleads with her husband to fight a transfer away from their verdant wonderland, insisting that the children are healthy and content in their current home. Characters strive to dismiss the gut-wrenching screams and the inky smoke piercing the radiant ambiance, to bask in the immediate beauty and peacefulness. It’s all potent but overt.
Although “The Zone of Interest” is definitely an astounding work, portraying a lesser-seen element of existences during one of the darkest of historical times, its lack of subtleness detracts from its artistry – and even its forcefulness. Once its point is made (early on), the repeated imagery and sounds revert to a certain tedium, again inspecting activities and details with its sluggish lens, monitoring minutia far too ploddingly. The finale, however, introducing a worthwhile bit of irregular chronological creativity, is wholly striking.
– Mike Massie