Those are the bleak, almost incomprehensible facts of history and the man. And yet, the reason Glazer’s film is so evocative and urgent is that it doesn’t seek to be a sober account of the Holocaust. Instead this movie is something slightly more obtuse and therefore infinitely more insidious. For all intents and purposes, this is a family’s home movies, and they’re inviting every viewer to see themselves in the banalities and compromises made by people who not only profited off the slaughter of millions, but thrived from it.
The film opens with Rudolf (Christian Friedel) and Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, who is having an extraordinary year between this and Anatomy of a Fall) partaking in a lakeside holiday in the beautiful Polish countryside. In the distance they might see some trains, or later a Jewish prisoner or two, but by and large they’re intentionally looking away from what is right under their nose.
There are, in fact, sequences of Hedwig being able to choose from the finest fur coats confiscated from faceless Jewish families. In another scene, she shows her mother around her garden that is punctuated by splashes of red roses. Both women pretend not to hear the cries from behind the wall beside all these flowers, with their willful ignorance only broken when their dog begins barking at the ferocious sounding hounds next door. Finally, the grandmother wonders if the Jewish woman she used to work for as a maid is on the other side… She then congratulates her daughter for landing such a useful husband and lavish lifestyle.
Glazer essays the blatant banality of evil with a deceptively disinterested gaze. By employing a cinema verite, nigh documentarian aesthetic, the filmmaker copies the real-life Höss family, who historically staged all the photos of their beloved family house while pointing the camera in the opposite direction of Auschwitz. They knew the source of all their wealth and good times was not an image they’d like to preserve for posterity. And while none are more culpable than the commandant, their implicit need to look away betrays the lie of so many Germans who claimed they never knew what was occurring in those camps. They too just looked the other way when the trains rolled by.
By the end of The Zone of Interest, the Höss boys’ sibling rivalry is so intense that it becomes the point of a scene, with both children oblivious of the ominous, now fully black cloud dominating the sky. Glazer films the sequence with the children as the focus, and the smoke appearing in the background like an unwelcome photobomber.
This peculiar approach to the material is as uncomfortably vital to our moment as it is chilling. So often in movies, Nazis are depicted as incomprehensibly evil or cartoonishly vile. To be sure, they were evil and vile in equal measure, but it’s become too easy to reduce them to caricature or a kind of myth from the past; humans who were themselves inhuman. But they lived real lives with real daily, understandable concerns, and they all (some more than others) made little compromises that most assuredly backslid the entire world into the abyss.