Cannes 2023

The Zone of Interest review – evil is made matter-of-fact in Jonathan Glazer’s chilling Holocaust drama

The fourth film by the British director is a deeply disturbing and suffocating look at complicity, loosely based on Martin Amis' novel

In Gitta Sereny's tome-like masterpiece Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, the former chief architect and later armaments minister of the Third Reich recounts a story to the writer about his 75-year-old father during a visit to his son's place of work. Speer remembers as his father, a man of liberal standing, is shown a vast model of future Berlin as designed by Speer and approved by Hitler, only to fall silent, turn to his son and remark: “You've all gone completely insane.”

The fourth, eagerly awaited film by British director Jonathan Glazer, his first since the hypnotic nightmare Under the Skin, is a film in direct opposition to the courage of Speer's father's words – a Michael Haneke-esque grappling with the evil of complicity, set at the peak of the Holocaust. It's a deeply unsettling, increasingly alien work of slow suffocation, loosely based on the novel by Martin Amis – both stark in its realism but bolstered with flashes of formal inventiveness, its nauseating atmosphere exemplified by an impeccable, doom-laden score by the great composer Mica Levi.

Rudolph Höss (Christian Friedel) is a Nazi commandant, who along with his wife, Hedwig, played with quiet menace by the great Sandra Hüller, live a seemingly idyllic life with their family in a large house, close to a river and lush woodland. But as they frolic and joke and bathe in the water, a chilling realisation soon dawns upon us: this is all happening next door to the Auschwitz concentration camp, a space we never directly enter but whose presence casts a literal and metaphorical black cloud over every scene. The couple's domestic bliss isn't hampered by their closeness to death, however; in fact, their lifestyle is powered by it, the proximity to the camp viewed as something of a flex, a convenience, a status symbol.

When Hedwig's mother comes to stay, she peers out one night at an inferno firing up in the darkness, her face looking sick at the implications. Like Speer's father, she seems to be thinking: “You've all gone completely insane.” The difference is that she says nothing. As Rudolph is summoned to Berlin to embed himself further as a cog in a growing, tyrannical machine, it's Hedwig's firm refusal to leave her home that inflicts the film with its most sinister side. How could anybody be “happy” with prisoners tending to their gardens and the sound of gunshots penetrating the air countless times a day? They managed, the film tells us, and Hüller sells the inner betrayal of her own humanity in her flat-footed walk and static line readings, a performance made even eerier by occasional bursts of manic, child-like laughter. Somehow she makes the simple act of eating breakfast alone into something that seems deeply wrong.

Glazer's restrained visual approach generates a kind of profound anxiousness, compromising the supposedly perfect setting – if you don't look over the fence, that is – and ensuring that every family dinner, every swim at the lake, every quiet walk around the pruned garden, reverberates with something inherently menacing. The camera barely moves, the effect like watching insects under a microscope; life itself has been made static by the choices of these characters and their knack for compartmentalising. But mostly The Zone of Interest is a film about what we hear, the standout element being the relentless sound design. Not just in Levi's abrasive, poisoned score, which often sounds piped in from another planet (or hell?), but the constant hum of death that sits below every single scene – a stomach-churning, industrial soundscape of fire and fury that the family have learned, nay chosen, to live with.

The film's most extraordinary moment might come in the final act – an intentional nod, maybe, to the infamous “gagging scene” in Joshua Oppenheimer's seminal documentary The Act of Killing, also about a genocide, as Rudolph, simply walking down a staircase, begins to repeatedly heave in a kind of involuntarily act of evil-purging. But then he seems to catch eyes with the viewer – or is it the weight of history itself that has dawned upon him? – plunging us through a keyhole-shaped time warp and into modern day Auschwitz, where we watch as the staff wipe down the walls and vacuum the floors after another day of visitors. It's an ambitious swing that denies the film as another routine exercise in Holocaust fiction – instead it suggests new ways to explore this subject matter, drawing parallels with the present and asking questions about our own desensitisation to not only history itself, but also films made in this very vein.

Glazer has given us the most visceral of all horror experiences because it is rooted in an objective truth, a rallying cry against the calamitous vein of evil that grows when people consciously opt to zone out the noise, all the more powerful for what it excludes than what it shows. It's a work that leaves you disturbed and afraid of the past, the present, and future in equal measure – perhaps on the verge of retching yourself.

The Zone of Interest was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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