Just a few weeks ago, protests calling for an end to the occupation of Palestine broke out all over the US. Shopping malls were shut down, roads were blocked, even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade was halted along certain intersections. This sharp uptick in solidarity was derided by some complaining they just wanted to do their holiday shopping in peace. It seems fitting that Jonathan Glazer’s newest film would release in times like these. Based on Martin Amis’ novel of the same name, it’s centered around Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss and his wife, Hedwig, trying to build a picturesque life for their family in a home located next to the Auschwitz concentration camp. I love that this movie’s releasing so close to Christmas, because it’s a film that asks an important question: in the face of genocide, what does it mean to go about business as usual? At a certain point, isn’t complacency complicity?
The visuals do a great job of capturing this central tension. Greens from trees in the Höss garden stand out in a palette that’s otherwise desaturated. As Hedwig shows her mother the grounds, this color grading choice adds to the sharp contrast between tableaux of domestic idyll and smoke stacks rising from behind a barbed wire fence that surrounds the commandant’s Edenic shrubbery. Other than a few tracking shots, the camera is mostly still. Glazer’s mission to eschew the ‘artifice of filmmaking,’ results in audiences facing history head-on. I share the director's instinct that a more expressive cinematography would have been distasteful, and am glad he avoided spectacle, choosing to give us longshots that not only build tension but transcend filmic drama, reflecting a kind of reality. Subtle simplicity is key here, and Glazer executes it expertly, even in the sound design. Frequent screams from the concentration camp next door shatter scenes of suburban comfort, such as when Höss is on the phone reprimanding SS members for plucking flowers carelessly, which harms the plants, all the while a human being can be heard screaming somewhere offscreen. Herein lies the film’s philosophy: it’s just as interested in what remains unseen.
Unlike other prominent movies about the Holocaust, we’re never taken inside Auschwitz. Instead, viewers are locked in the day to day routine of the Höss family, evading accusations of ‘torture porn’ in order to focus on the disconnect needed for someone to look the other way when facing a genocide. This isn’t to say Glazer whitewashes as much as he finds less-performative ways to make us confront past atrocities. Along with an Oscar-worthy sound design, we get small bits of dialogue among Nazi housewives having afternoon tea, or the image of a Jewish servant washing blood off Rudolf’s jackboots. This ‘tranquil’ domesticity is interrupted when Rudolf is assigned a different post, causing a rift with Hedwig, who refuses to leave. Desperately clinging to her title as ‘The Queen of Auschwitz,’ she and the children stay behind as the family’s patriarch leaves for several months, creating a strain in their marriage that causes viewers to see how no one escapes these horrific events unscathed, no matter how passive your participation may be.
In a scene toward the middle of the film, Hedwig mentions how they’ve planted vines and bushes to grow over the barbed wire fence; such willful ignorance perfectly speaks to the viewpoint of Americans who’d rather go Black Friday shopping or host a Christmas dinner than try to change the fact that their country is the only one voting against a ceasefire for Israel’s siege on Gaza, which has resulted in over ten thousand deaths, many of those being children. You can look the other way all you want, but as this movie’s powerful ending sequence demonstrates: history will always remember. The Zone of Interest hits theaters this week, and is perhaps the most important and well-made film of the year.