starring Sandra Hüller, Christian Friedel, Freya Kreutzkam, Ralph Herforth
screenplay by Jonathan Glazer, based on the novel by Martin Amis
directed by Jonathan Glazer
by Walter Chaw A real sense of evil permeates every nook and cranny of Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest, which is an adaptation of the Martin Amis novel in the same way Glazer's Under the Skin is an adaptation of Michel Farber's novel. That is to say, one of tone and mood that discards all but the broadest strokes of the original premise. If Glazer applied the same process to this film as his previous one, he let the mysterious currents of his intuition guide his hand across the text. He is the philosopher as artist, an anthropologist locating himself in a human blind and documenting the mysterious movement of the dark as it oozes from one crooked and low place to another. I don't know how he finds the threads he pulls, but his fingers must be more sensitive than mine. I also don't entirely understand how he sneaks toxins past my defenses, desensitization, and tolerances: the draft you can never locate after the first freeze of a long winter locks you in place. Glazer isn't interested in moralizing, in trying to understand, even contextualize, how an ordinary, upper-middle-class military family in The Zone of Interest can owe their existence to mechanized genocide and feel no call to conscience. He doesn't see his characters as so complex they defy binary judgment; he sees them as so mechanical and simple they defy binary judgment. The universe tends to comfort. It's a fool's mission to impose systems of understanding on the ant Isserly beholds at the beginning of Under the Skin. Trying to do so could drive one to madness. Trying to do so says more about you than it does the ant.
Glazer doesn't believe in a conscience, nothing so lofty as that. He thinks we are only collections of mappable electric impulses provoked by fire and saddled by the cruel urge to attempt to place meaning on what is meaningless. All of his films are inexplicable, and all of them are love stories and all of them are horror stories. They leave a mark you can't wash off, like a surgical scar. Although The Zone of Interest is only Glazer's fourth film, it feels like the seventh and eighth hours of his only film. He is telling one story, and it's our story: the death rattles of life leaving our insensible bodies, held up as philosophies and high art. The Zone of Interest opens with two minutes of black screen as Mica Levi's discordant, unsettling score makes our skin a single exposed nerve, so that every breeze, every change in pressure, every brush against us, is unbearably, keenly, invasively bright. The black dissolves into a pastoral scene by a rushing river as a large family, filthy with children, takes a picnic. I thought immediately of Manet's disquieting 1863 painting Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, where the uncanniness of the nude female form gazing directly at the viewer robs it of a voyeur's anonymity and obviates, to a degree, the vulnerability her nakedness suggests, flanked as she is by two men--one from the West and the other, perhaps, the near East. Does the painting suggest a sexual threat to women as omnipresent and without nation? Whatever pall hangs over it hangs over The Zone of Interest: ancient, unquenchable, ineffable, and vile.
The family is that of SS Commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel). They live in a large house--not flashy, but more than comfortable; they have a maid and a nanny to help the matriarch of the clan, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), with her domestic duties. Rudolf lives close to his work. Beyond the entrance to the garden, you can see him gathering with other military men at a gate just out of sight to the right. Sometimes, over scenes of quotidian routine, the sound of gunshots can be heard, and occasional shifts in perspective bring with them a glimpse of smokestacks belching bilious shrouds into the air, or plumes of steam from a steady stream of locomotives coming in full and leaving empty. But you don't know that. Rudolf is a good dad. He takes his young boys fishing in the river one day--he waded to the middle, the kids splashing on the bank--when suddenly a noxious ooze clouds the water, washing over them. He panics a little and hurries back to the house, sticks his kids in the bath, and snorts grey- and black-specked mucus into the sink. It's the only time we see him truly anxious. He's a boring man, an ordinary man, a family man and middle-manager with a small gift for moving numbers around in a ledger--though it's clear his peers don't hold him in high regard, so his tales of his victories at work are exaggerated for the weary consideration of his wife, who is really only interested in her own comfort. Late in The Zone of Interest, during a board meeting in which an extended roll-call reveals the startling number of concentration camps and the dull, ordinary men tasked with running them, Rudolph gets to deliver a bulleted presentation about logistics and efficiency. They could be talking about lumber or industrial widgets, but they're not.
The end of The Zone of Interest finds Rudolph descending an endless stairway of Art Deco steps, pausing on each landing to retch, wetly but unproductively, while clinging to the bannister. Whatever evil is trying to come up unbidden, Rudolph is practiced in swallowing it down. Glazer then flashes forward to the Auschwitz Museum--the hall full of shoes, the room full of corrective/assistive devices--and the small team of custodians vacuuming the silent halls, squeegeeing the windows, keeping the visitors separate from the artifacts. It reminded me of Matthew Barney's Cremaster series: the scaling of the Guggenheim populated with every era of human achievement and its attendant atrocities, tied together by the invisible, subterranean influence of a secret society of Masons. But what is the infernal undertow that drove The Holocaust? The Zone of Interest believes evil happens because unexceptional people, bereft of curiosity and empathy, do their jobs and do them well--not for vast riches, but for simple, animal comfort and the occasional bump in social status a new title confers. Early on, a pair of salesmen tries to sell Rudolph on an oven that can process "four to five hundred units" per block in a continuous rotating cycle of loading and emptying. "Closer to five," one of them promises as they lay out a smartly-drawn blueprint for the project they're proposing. Rudolph asks the kind of clarifying questions you ask a contractor putting in a patio, and when they're interrupted, he sighs like you do when you're disturbed in your cubicle while writing an email. I am haunted now by the image of lumpen Rudolph walking down and down and down, stopping to retch, and continuing down and down and down and down...
I haven't been able to stop thinking about The Zone of Interest, about how Glazer switches suddenly at key points to an infrared vision of a small Polish girl lugging a bagful of apples around in the pitch black. How she shoves the apples in the dirt and how they turn into little white dots as the heat from her hands dissipates, then vanish into the gloam. Is she trying to help? Is she planting seeds for the future? Is she an evocation of Eve or the witch? Will it matter? We know it doesn't. I can't shake how the screen suffuses with red during a pullback from a red flower in a garden Hedwig tends and leads her infant through as lovingly as any mother in any place and time. I can feel the film inside my head, and I wonder if I'm going insane. Rudolf gets a promotion that comes with a transfer to another camp. When Hedwig refuses to move with him, they argue and there are tears, and then Rudolph writes a letter asking his boss for a favour in letting Hedwig stay behind so they don't have to uproot the kids. I am haunted by the scene where a maid drops a plate and Hedwig mutters to her that if she's not more careful, Hedwig will "send her up the chimney." I don't know how Glazer does what he does, though I do know his films pull me outside of my body to show it back to me in its baseness, its fragility--in all of its minute, mortal ugliness. His movies are a mirror tuned in such a way that the reflection is a bit too sharp--invasive, unpleasant, mesmerizing. Is this what I look like? Is this what other people see? It's like watching your own autopsy. The Zone of Interest is an astonishment shot on remote-controlled security cameras using only natural lighting and diegetic sound, until it cuts away to those jarring inserts and infrared nightmares, all electrified and barbed by Levi's jangling, blistering score, a chorus of screaming so the skin covering the world peels back to reveal the insensible work of blood and sinew. It is inevitable. It is inside of us. Yet we always need the reminder.