Another Side: On Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” (2023)

A stylized shot of Christian Friedel as Rudolf Höss in Jonathan Glazer's "The Zone of Interest".

Have you ever encountered someone who valued his or her veneer above all else? Who was able to forgo any empathy for those suffering in order to maintain such a veneer? Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is not so much about the Holocaust as it is about our reactions to it, enforcing the notion that even the most extreme suffering, that is, these crimes against humanity, can become—for some—as ordinary and perfunctory as planting a bed of flowers. 

 

The film opens with three and a half minutes of black screen and accompanying sound, to which we are expected to listen (evoking the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). Yes, listen, because the sound within this film is every bit a character as the people themselves. Set in beautiful, bucolic Poland, we are presented with scenery that would otherwise seem idyllic, were it not for the Auschwitz death camp within walking distance. 

 

Rudolf Höss (played by Christian Friedel from The White Ribbon) serves as commandant of the camp and lives next door with his wife Hedwig (played by Sandra Hüller) and their children. Hedwig is regularly praised by visiting SS soldiers for her beautiful house and garden, which she keeps in pristine condition. Past the wall, however, reside the camp’s crematoriums and its dismal watchtower, along with the coexisting sounds of gunshots, screams, and oncoming trains. What is so distressing is how these noises of death blend with that of the birds and wind—contrasting to this otherwise ‘palace of peace’ where we witness Hedwig showing her various flowers to her baby, or her kids frolicking at a pool party. Are they oblivious to what is going on beyond the wall or do they just not care? (At night, her sons examine the gold within sets of teeth under a flashlight.) Never is the suffering seen, merely heard. 

 

This ‘out of view suffering’ is why much of the film focuses on Hedwig and her need to maintain her veneer and various comforts. As example, she informs her husband that she wishes to return to that spa in Italy so she can undergo ‘all that pampering.’ Later, we see her barking orders at her servants and sifting among prisoners’ belongings as one might at a flea market. ‘Find me some chocolate,’ she tells Rudolf before he heads off to another casual day of murder. Offhandedly, we overhear chitchat from the women sharing how they found a diamond within a tube of toothpaste. What to say when physical objects are valued more than human lives?

 

Ultimately, tension arises between husband and wife when Rudolf informs her that he is to be relocated to another camp. Hedwig, however, does not want to leave the comfort of her home, and so she decides to stay. ‘Our children are strong, healthy, and happy,’ she insists. But this is more about Hedwig’s luxury and convenience above all else. I mean, she’s got such a nice home beside a death camp—who on earth would want to leave? 

 

An important scene, and what is probably the crux of the film, is when Hedwig’s mother visits. Hedwig, the dutiful daughter, presents to her mother her guest room, which is lovely and well-made, painted with pastel colors. Her mother seems to be tense, however, upon hearing the sounds of gunshots and then ultimately witnessing the smoke arising from the crematoriums. Then, in a sudden move, the aged woman departs in the middle of the night, leaving only a note. Hedwig reads it, burns it, and threatens one of her servants for setting an extra breakfast plate. ‘My husband could spread your ashes…’ Hedwig tells the girl. 

 

Initially, I was mistaken by Hedwig’s mother’s motivations upon first watch, where I thought her abrupt leaving was due to some moral implication but as Glazer has noted—it wasn’t morality but proximity that disgusted her. (Not to mention that upon the second watch, I caught more detail—most notably when Hedwig’s mother prattles on about how those sent to die had their items auctioned off. ‘I loved her drapes,’ she says when she speaks about a deceased Jewish neighbor, then bemoans the fact that she didn’t acquire them.)

 

Furthermore, one must wonder why Hedwig is so angered by her mother’s abrupt departure. Is it really about her mother leaving or more so about her mother having cracked Hedwig’s veneer and wounding her pride? Could this so-called beautiful dwelling possibly be not good enough? If all this sounds mundane, that is because it is. But notice where the emotion is directed—not at the atrocities taking place beyond the wall, but at Hedwig’s selfish pride. Contrast this with the young Polish girl who is one of the few individuals expressing empathy for those suffering, as she bikes at night, leaving apples for the prisoners under their shovels. 

 

Many watching The Zone of Interest will find Rudolf reading to his children unsettling—that this ‘kind father’ could also be in charge of torture, having sexual relations with female prisoners, and joking about gassing people. Ultimately, Rudolf is portrayed as a ‘boring bureaucrat’ (according to Friedel) who isn’t frothing at the mouth, but rather, is capable of compartmentalizing and moving about as anyone. 

 

Scott Roxborough from The Hollywood Reporter expressed it best: 

 

Friedel’s performance as Höss is the dark heart of Zone of Interest. Avoiding both sentimentality and the understandable urge to depict Höss as an “evil monster,” his take invites identification with the Nazi commandant without ever allowing us to empathize with him. It underscores Glazer’s approach with Zone, which encourages the audience to see the similarities not between themselves and the victims of Nazis but with the perpetrators, who diligently ignore the horrors being committed in their name taking place just out of view.

 

This approach is likely to disturb viewers, but the film’s intent is not to disturb, mind you, but to hold up a mirror. And so, I must return to this review’s opening, where the message aligns with the film’s end. Once Rudolf Höss receives word that he will be returning to Auschwitz to undertake ‘Operation Höss’, (which consisted of the extermination of thousands of Jewish Hungarians) the film switches to the camp in the present day—as a museum, where workers arrive to vacuum and clean. They go about their tasks perfunctorily because how else would these chores get done? Glazer never instructs the way that viewers should feel—he merely presents the atrocities from the other side of the wall. Yet through his use of foreboding, ominous music, he lets the audience decide.

 

It has been said that the difference between good and evil is only a matter of perspective. However, recognizing and understanding that difference does not mean we must sympathize with the opposing side. The Zone of Interest will likely leave us feeling on edge, as our minds imagine—and know—what is taking place. This film shows another side. We need not sympathize.

 

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