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Unveiling the Horrors of Humanity in THE ZONE OF INTEREST Review

Image Courtesy of A24

By Dolores Quintana

I didn’t know what to expect with THE ZONE OF INTEREST. What Jonathan Glazer delivered with the film was something that I have never experienced with a film about the Holocaust. I would rank it on the level of the grievous anti-war film of the Nazi occupation of Belarus, the legendary Come and See.

For those who do not know, here is the synopsis: The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his wife Hedwig, strive to build a dream life for their family in a house and garden next to the camp.

I was profoundly moved by the film. I audibly sobbed during the sequence with the present-day Auschwitz displays, and someone I didn't know tried to comfort me after the screening was over. The film has a serene hypnotic quality that shows you exactly how easy it is to dehumanize others and disassociate from brutality all around you. Even the title, taken from the novel it was based on by Martin Amis, reflects the dehumanization; from the title to the actions of the Nazis, this thorough line of disinterest is observed. It is a polite euphemism to gloss over diabolical depravity.

Dehumanization is a tool that politicians and others wield nearly every day. When you hear that someone is merely an animal, undeserving of any sympathy and that we should just consider how to get rid of them and “solve the problem,” you are hearing the echoes of Adolph Hitler. During World War II, the genocide committed against Jewish people, LGBTQ+ people, the Roma, the disabled, and leftists and intellectuals was called “The Final Solution.” Another thing to remember is that genocidal actions did not start or stop with The Holocaust. These actions are still taken to this day.

Artistically, that is the point. Many films about the Holocaust or films that have Nazis as characters present them as this monstrous and glamorous evil. We generally see this depicted through the uniforms worn and through the charismatic portrayal delivered by actors. Hüller, Friedel, the others in the family, and their servants have no such glamour. They are frighteningly ordinary, petty, greedy, dull people.

Sandra Hüller and Christian Friedel give such gentle performances of normalcy, filled with passivity, except when they lash out. Hüller’s Hedwig does lord over her servants, threatening one with death when she is angered by her husband. Hüller told me that one of the conditions that she and Christian Friedel had to agree to in order to star in the film was that their characters would not be sympathetic and that there would be no attempt to excuse what they did.

This was successful. It's horrifying and enraging exactly how Rudolf and Hedwig Höss simply ignore the constant sounds of people being murdered in the camp just outside of their homes and behave as if all is normal. Höss has made it simply a job in his mind, and his wife thinks of how his job will benefit her. Hedwig thinks about her little treats and comfort. Such small cogs filled with avarice, willfully blind to the massacre that they are responsible for.

A man smokes a cigarette behind a fence.
Image Courtesy of A24

It is seen in the casual way that they accept the spoils of the camps as being only their due. Hedwig Höss coldly distributes and tries on the spoils from the camps. The clothes were collected from the human beings who were murdered in the massive machine of death, but she doesn’t let it bother her. Does it really bother her on some level? That is for you to observe and decide as you watch THE ZONE OF INTEREST.

While watching THE ZONE OF INTEREST, I thought of a quote I read, "Nice people made the best Nazis...When things got ugly, the people my mother lived alongside chose not to focus on “politics,” instead of busying themselves with happier things. They were lovely, kind people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away.” That is the importance of Glazer’s approach. He never shows the camp itself or any of the violence; the sound design makes the acts take place in your mind, where they are a thousand times worse. It goes straight to your limbic center.

The sound design is devastating. It is as if there are two films going on at once—the “domestic family drama” of the Hoss family and the secondary narrative of sound, which gives lie to the peace of the Höss’ paradise. If you listen carefully to the sound and you do not let yourself disassociate from it as the characters do, you will feel the rage I felt and understand why this kind of evil is so insidious. Johnnie Burn, the sound designer, assembles hundreds of hours of sound as realistic as he could possibly find, and it is haunting. If you are able to ignore the second film, a.k.a the sound design, you should consider what that means.

THE ZONE OF INTEREST was made with other different techniques as well. The house used as the set was miked up and had cameras embedded all over, rather than with a film crew hovering around with a boom mike and camera rig, which the actors spoke about in a Q&A after a screening of the film. There is a usage of naturalistic sounds, with the sounds of footsteps on the wooden floor and the swishing movement of clothes. The actors were allowed to walk through the house without ignoring an entire crew around them. It gives the film another layer of realism and detail where the actors could allow themselves just to be in the moment.

In THE ZONE OF INTEREST, the Nazis are rendered as all too ordinary. Their society has added genocide as a job description, and the task of the commandants is to kill as many as possible in the most efficient manner while remembering to reserve some of the able-bodied as slaves because corporations need workers. Remember that the motto on the gates of Auschwitz and other camps was Arbeit macht frei, or Work Makes You Free. Think about that idea when you consider that many people still demand work to measure how much another human deserves help and compassion.

Historically, artists hear the call before almost everyone else and, with their art, frequently warn us of the danger approaching the world. This is what Glazer is doing with THE ZONE OF INTEREST. Because the film focuses on the real problem, concentrating on the everyday machinations and plans of these very ordinary people, the Nazis’ Final Solution is rendered even more hideous. It is shown how simple it is to achieve such horror.

This is an incredibly important film that shows exactly how passive people allow themselves to be used for evil and can justify it. In particular, this resonates because there is a far-right power grab happening right now all over the world, and the second rise of fascism is well underway. In fact, this film might anger some people because they recognize themselves in THE ZONE OF INTEREST.

THE ZONE OF INTEREST instantly went on my best film list of 2023. Mesmerizing and enraging, it is a film about the potential for evil inside of us all. It's a horror movie without supernatural monsters or slasher killers, but it is much more frightening than many horror films because it is so real and completely possible. It has already happened. It may be happening right now.

It can happen anywhere again at any time. It may be closer than you think.

THE ZONE OF INTEREST is now in select theaters.


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