The Zone of Interest, the latest film from writer-director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Under the Skin, Birth), is a fascinating look into the apathy of evil that’ll haunt viewers, but will leave some wishing it were done a little differently.
The film, loosely based on Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name, follows the family of a Nazi commandant living just outside of Auschwitz. Along with the family’s daily activities of entertaining guests and attending family dinner, the patriarch, Rudolf Hoss (Cristian Friedal), deals with the social politics within the Nazi party that affect his family. His latest obstacle comes in the form of a transfer to another facility that’ll force him to uproot his family from the idealistic life they’ve built. Rudolf and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Huller), face their biggest challenge yet as a family and find themselves concerned that the stability of their lives is about to be broken.
Glazer establishes the perfect vibe within the first few minutes despite there being nothing on-screen. The screen is black, but it evokes such strong emotions through Mica Levi’s soul-stirring score. The moans and serene sound of the music come together to create a surreal atmosphere that’s unlike anything you’ll experience this year in film. It’s even more impactful when you close your eyes and soak in all the emotions and sounds that are coming through. Then, when the more organic sounds of the film’s world come in, your head is in the right place for this domestic setting in the middle of a world of absolute horror.
When we think about disturbing depictions of families engrossed in their own twisted views of normalcy, films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Rob Zombie’s Firefly trilogy immediately come to mind. However, The Zone of Interest could easily be placed alongside those films — although it’s much subtler and thematic in its depiction — for how it shows this Nazi family living just outside of unspeakable atrocity. From how Hedwig gets the kids ready for school to the tense discussions that come from Rudolf facing a potential transfer, this family could easily feel like any other family. The big difference, though, is that they’re Nazis, but that sense of eerie relatability isn’t lost and ends up being one of the film’s most powerful elements.
Despite their Nazis beliefs making the family fundamentally difficult to understand, there’s still an underlying element of relatability in their domestic struggles. The power of this story is in seeing how close to home evil can be and how easily it can blend into the lives we view as normal. It’s what makes watching this family so compelling and necessary, as it delivers a lesson that’s more important than ever: that evil isn’t larger-than-life but can look just like us at times. This depiction of Nazis in WWII is vastly unique compared to anything we’ve seen in film before and it’s the mix of Glazer’s vision and the strong lead performances that make this experience captivating.
Glazer also adds some exterior elements that amplify the horror. Even in quiet moments of the family going about their normal lives, the screams and horrors of Auschwitz can be heard around them. Although the screams of people being tortured by the Nazis and even being killed for disobedience will induce grisly chills for viewers, they don’t even affect Rudolf and his family — which only instills more disgusting chills. For them, this hellish nightmare is their accepted commonplace, and it only adds to the disturbing nature of this family. It’s a simple but immensely powerful showing of how devoid of humanity the Nazis were and how twisted their vision of life was.
Not to mention, there are scenes that depict the perspective of a young Polish girl alongside the Nazi houses at night that showcase the genuine fear and terror felt by anyone in the vicinity of Auschwitz. Those scenes are perfectly matched with an unsettling night vision filter that instantly evokes chills and sets a daunting tone. The moments of Rudolf simply going about his business as a Nazi commandant are equally as unnerving, since hearing him talk about Nazi plans and developments as if they were just usual business will leave viewers hollow.
Still, even with Glazer’s superb vision in creating a relatable environment with horror-driven undertones, The Zone of Interest wouldn’t be as compelling without Friedal and Huller’s performances. They both express this sense of family that’s hard not to connect with because of how genuine it is for them. When their relationship is tested over Rudolf’s potential transfer, their emotions around their family potentially splitting and the life they’ve built being uprooted come off real. There are moments where you almost feel bad for them and connect with the universal pain they’re feeling as a family because their performances bring out those emotions. Yet Friedal and Huller are still able to flip that switch and remind viewers who they’re really watching through the prejudice, emotionless hatred, and undeniable wickedness they show. It’s such a complex performance, yet Friedal and Huller make it look easy and are entrancing through every scene.
All these elements combine excellently for an experience that shows how people can just coexist and even thrive despite the horrors around them. The film is a necessary watch for this reason, as it provides the kind of compelling and thought-provoking view that allows us to recognize what evil really is. It creates a cathartic experience that allows for a unique perspective on this terrifying era of human history and lets viewers reflect on how this family can resonate with today.
However, for some, Glazer’s more directionless execution of the narrative will make The Zone of Interest a tough watch. Although the film does provide fascinating perspectives and depictions that can be haunting yet enthralling to watch, its artistic flourishes could be a total turn off for some. It’s the type of film where you might not feel enough is happening to stay engaged, since it’s mostly about watching this family go about their lives.
Even some of the added elements of the Polish girl walking through the night can come off a little disjointed, since these scenes aren’t delved into much directly. The ending sequence—which highlights both Rudolf subtly getting a vision of a future he doesn’t want to see but also highlights the devastating impact the Nazis had—is marred by the more thematic nature of the film. It’s never something that makes the film unwatchable or uninteresting, but it can impact the overall takeaways. The Zone of Interest definitely requires some post-watch time to really soak in what it’s saying. But for some, they might not feel the film directly provides enough to do so.
The Zone of Interest won’t be for everyone — especially those not looking for an auteurist approach to its story and takeaways — but it’s a must-watch for the relevant social and emotional impact it has. Glazer has crafted a masterful look into evil living just like us that can’t be ignored. It’s equally moving and haunting, and The Zone of Interest is easily one of the most compelling and unique watches of the year.