It may sound like an unlikely endorsement for a film, but stay with me here: The Zone of Interest will make you want to puke from discomfort and anxiety. Or at least, that’s the reaction I had for most of Jonathan Glazer’s 105-minute experiment in art that challenges every sense of decorum and expectation. Ostensibly a Holocaust film, it is unlike anything other film created on the subject, and that includes 2015’s first-person perspective Son of Saul about a man fighting to survive life in the camps.
Here, Glazer centers the Nazi commander of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), a vile, brutal man who ran the camp for over three years and strategized and implemented the methodological genocide enacted there. In an approach that is as daring as it is disarming, Glazer puts us inside the home Höss shares with his wife, Hedwig (the great Sandra Hüller) and their young children on the edge of the camp, observing their everyday lives while the worst war crimes ever committed unfold around them.
That nauseated feeling in the pit of your stomach as you watch The Zone of Interest is, it’s fair to assume, intentional, as the film nonchalantly moves through the busy daily lives of a soldier and his homemaker wife, all while we know exactly who this people are and what’s going on outside the high stone walls of their disturbingly idyllic compound. Hedwig spends her days overseeing the house staff, caring for the children and prepping for her mother’s visit; she’s built up an enviable garden next to the house, with vegetables and flowers of all sorts, spaces to sit and enjoy the (fresh?) air, and even a small pool at the center for the kids to splash in.
Friedel and Hüller play their roles with a sense of palpable detachment, likely the result of both the inherent distance these people had to deceive themselves into to commit war crimes, but also a necessary choice for two actors playing despicable characters. Glazer never goes so far as to make either of them, or anyone on this side of the wall, sympathetic, which is both a relief and a wholly unique viewing experience for an art form built on an audience’s investment in its protagonists.
Most scenes masquerade as something entirely ordinary, like a kitchen catch-up over tea between Hedwig and other wives, or a small gathering of senior officers for a birthday toast to Höss in the middle of the workday. But there is a menacing truth underpinning every moment of the film, masterfully expressed through a sound design featuring sniper’s bullets in the background or the billowing smoke sweeping across the scene as another train arrives filled with innocent souls.
This is not a film for moviegoers interested in entertainment that allows an audience to “check out” for a couple of hours, the sort of light laughs or fluffy plots that don’t tax a viewer’s emotional well-being. Quite the opposite, in fact, and as we spend more time with Höss and his wife, we see just how depraved they really are. Sure, their depravity is dressed up in the endorsed political party of the time, and they mind their social Ps and Qs while they threaten their house staff with cremation (one of the most chilling scenes, in a film rife with them). That doesn’t make it any less present, and it all only serves to make the proceedings that much more discomfiting.
The Zone of Interest is one of my favorite films of 2023, but not because it is a movie I plan to revisit again and again. Instead, Glazer—alongside his extraordinary lead actors—has created an indelible piece of powerful art that only requires one viewing to recognize both his undeniable mastery of filmmaking and the incredibly poignant way he and co-writer Martin Amis push their audiences to consider experiences that may not be comfortable to witness but are compelling in their own right.