Nazi-themed film The Zone of Interest powerfully shows banal side of evil
Fiction movies about Nazis or featuring Nazi characters have run the gamut since they started, dating back to Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 comedy The Dictator. What they all have in common, though, is the idea that Nazis are inherently evil, making it easy for audiences to side with one group or person since the other side – the Nazi one – comes pre-labeled as odious.
The Zone of Interest does the same thing, but in a manner that has rarely, if ever, been attempted before. It centers on Commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their family, who live in a house just outside the gates of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. While it’s clear who Höss is and where he is located, the film never enters the camp’s gates, and gives only brief glimpses of its prisoners.
Instead, the film focuses almost entirely on the day-to-day life of the family, which sees Rudolf hold meetings with his underlings, Hedwig manage the household with pride, and the children go to school, play, and go swimming in a nearby river. Were it not for the horrific things being regularly discussed, or the awful sounds and sights emanating from the camp, the film could be about a run-of-the-mill family living in the 1940s.
Written and directed by Jonathan Glazer, the film almost perfectly encapsulates the banal form that evil can take. Villains, and especially Nazis, are typically portrayed as over-the-top or obviously depraved, but here the malevolence reveals itself in how normally it’s treated by those perpetrating it. There is no emotion attached; the goings-on at the prison camp are simply a regular part of their day. Hedwig especially views what’s happening next door as an inconvenience to the idyllic life she has set up for their family.
Where the film gets its power is in what it doesn’t show or shows with no one commenting upon it. Faint gunshots and screams can be heard at various points in the film, hinting at the terror inside the camp’s walls. Prisoners wordlessly take care of menial tasks for the family, their fear palpable through their deference. Worst of all is the sight of near-constant smoke coming from the camp, either from the crematoriums being used or the trains arriving and departing.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Martin Amis, although it has nothing in common with the book save for the setting and the title. Though Glazer’s intentions with the film may differ, it can be perceived as a way to highlight just how easily fascist ideas can be normalized. At the very least, you’d expect at least one person in the story to object to the inhumanity occurring just yards from the house, but Glazer refuses to give the audience that release.
The roles in the film are tricky to play, as everyone playing adults has to maintain an even disposition while relating horrific dialogue. Hüller, who played a similarly hard-to-read character in the recent Anatomy of a Fall, succeeds the most, making Hedwig into a monster without acting monstrous. Friedel is her equal, which is saying something since he had arguably the more difficult task given that he’s wearing a Nazi uniform most of the time.
Eighty years removed from World War II, it’s nearly impossible to make a film about that time that doesn’t feel like a retread. Glazer has done just that with The Zone of Interest, showing Nazis and Nazism in a new light while still demonstrating how appalling their influence can be.
The Zone of Interest opens in select theaters on January 19.