‘The Zone of Interest’ movie review: A harrowing, one-of-a-kind portrayal of apathy

‘The Zone of Interest’ is a Holocaust movie unlike anything before; a one-of-a-kind portrayal of the despicability and apathy that human beings can bear to do the gnarliest things as a mundane part of their everyday life

March 04, 2024 07:55 pm | Updated 07:55 pm IST

A still from ‘The Zone of Interest’

A still from ‘The Zone of Interest’ | Photo Credit: A24

Think of the first images that come to mind when you recall the countless masterpieces on the Holocaust that have graced our screens. A striking image of a little boy next to a military tank; a brutalised, pushed-to-the-brink Jewish pianist walking through the streets of a decimated Warsaw; a terrific Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler breaking down, helplessly guilt-tripping on all that he could have done more; or even that of a woman smiling as she looks down at Adolf Hitler from a theatre screen….you get it.

Now, Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar front-runner The Zone of Interest is a Holocaust movie unlike anything before, one which leaves you confused about how you wish to remember it (before the realisation sets that the film only gets more disconcerting and bizarre the more you ponder about it). Every image from this film evokes a sense of despondency, telling a story that is much more chilling to think about in retrospect.

With a haunting background score that reverberates in your head for hours after the movie, you are taken into the world of Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller), the wife of Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), a commander at a concentration camp in Auschwitz. Through long, uninterrupted static shots we are shown the dream haven that Hedwig has turned this countryside home into, with several maids working in unison to keep their masters and their children leading a life of comfort. They go on picnics, Rudolf loves the view of the river that runs nearby, and Hedwig can’t stop gossiping with the posh German women who visit her.

Now comes the devil in the detail: the Höss’ house borders the Auschwitz concentration camp that Rudolf oversees, and everything about the house  — from the toys the kids play with to the cutlery used to eat food — comes from pillaging through the belongings of the prisoners in the camp. In an extraordinary attempt to display viscerally the chilling casualness with which evil operates, the film puts the atrocities that Jews were subjected to in the background, only suggesting their plights through sound, visual cues and dialogue, while the foreground shows all the merriness of the Nazi life.

The Zone of Interest (German)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller
Runtime: 105 minutes
Storyline: Hedwig Höss, the wife of Rudolf Höss, builds a dream home for the family next to the Auschwitz concentration camp

Though measuredly told, with complete art-house sensibilities, the film doesn’t wait to hit you where it hurts. Much of the initial scenes follow Hedwig’s fascination for the pretty things she gets from the camp, which is constantly shown in the background, with smoke from the furnaces of these extermination camps rising through the chimneys even at night. In one heart-shattering scene, Hedwig laughs off about how she found a diamond in one of the toothpastes that she had gotten from the camps. “How clever they (Jews) are; I have ordered more toothpaste,” she goes.

How Hedwig reacts to the news of Rudolf’s promotion and subsequent transfer to Oranienburg freezes you with the acute realisation of what the job at the concentration camp meant to these Nazis and their families. If you are shaken by Rudolf’s indifference to his job of leading a slaughterhouse to torture and end millions of lives, and how professional and organised this Nazi machinery has made it all, you are torn to see the extent to which this woman, a dotting mother, is willing to go to save this horror of a world she has built with the blood, sweat and tears of her prisoners.

The Zone of Interest is a one-of-a-kind portrayal of the despicability and apathy that human beings can bear to do the gnarliest things as a mundane part of their everyday life. When you see Hedwig threaten her maid “to have her ashes spread over the fields,” while casually spreading cheese over toast, it is evil showing itself in the most banal fashion on screen.

But again, how does one choose to remember a film that so incessantly, and quite reservedly, focuses only on the perpetrators for a specific emotional effect? What more does this film tell when countless films have told wonderfully the horrors of the holocaust? What is the need to tell this story now? While a lot of these questions remain unanswered, the afterthought that should haunt you for days is this: how does The Zone of Interest reflect us, who like many of these characters choose to be oblivious to the ‘camps’ that exist on the peripheries of our lives?

The Zone of Interest is currently running in theatres

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