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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Reel Critic: “The Zone of Interest”

The Hirschfield International Film Series showed “The Zone of Interest” in Dana Auditorium last week.
The Hirschfield International Film Series showed “The Zone of Interest” in Dana Auditorium last week.

The Hirschfield International Film Series returned to Dana Auditorium on March 7, bringing an audience of Middlebury College students, faculty and community members an exclusive screening of one of 2023’s most celebrated films: “The Zone of Interest.” Written and directed by British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer, the German-language film observes the daily lives of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his family as they enjoy a serene existence in an idyllic compound located just outside the walls of the Nazi concentration camp. 

Based on the late author Martin Amis’ novel of the same name, the historical drama premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May before receiving a limited theatrical run in the United States in December, which was enough to garner it five nominations and two wins (international feature and sound) at the 2024 Academy Awards.

Now, thanks to the dedicated work of the Hirschfield Programming Committee, this painfully vital film has made its way to Middlebury, and those who were able to attend the screening will not soon forget it. Constructed with clockwork precision from images of refined appeal and sounds of paralyzing horror, “The Zone of Interest” is an arresting audio-visual experience that confronts its audience with the jarring reality that the most barbarous of acts can be carried out by the most civilized of people.

The central conceit of Glazer’s film is the constant contrast between what it lets the audience see and hear. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal’s camera rarely leaves the bounds of the Höss family’s house and garden, and except for two brief yet striking night sequences shot in infrared, it never ventures over the walls to reveal the atrocities occurring on the other side. What Glazer and Zal present instead is a series of delicately composed, mostly static shots of the banal pleasantries of upper-middle-class domestic life. 

Rudolf (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) lie in bed and chat about chocolate and perfume, eat birthday cake with their young children and host a pool party in their yard. Watching these scenes unfold is akin to watching a family drama, if a rather uneventful one. Never before, however, has a family drama been set to a soundtrack of rifle pops and wailing babies. That is the innovation of “The Zone of Interest,” and it makes for one of the most devastating sensory experiences ever evoked by a motion picture.

Oscar-winning sound designer Johnnie Burn spent a year building an aural library of the Holocaust to provide Glazer with the sounds that were so critical to the director’s vision of a totally auditory immersion into the horrors of Auschwitz. Together, they created a dense soundscape of human suffering and despair that underlies every benign image of the Höss estate, provoking audio-visual dissonance of the most disturbing kind.

The effect, of course, is intended to thrust the audience into the minds of the Hösses, who spend their every day within earshot of industrialized murder but have the satisfaction of never needing to look it in the eye. They manage to deafen themselves to the sounds of death emanating from over the walls of their home. For the audience, however, the ghastly cries of the unseen suffering are never less than shockingly immediate.

The morbidly ingenious interplay between sight and sound in Glazer’s film is a bellwether of the overall quality of its craftsmanship. Production designer Chris Oddy’s period work captures the ostentatious Nazi aesthetic with stunning detail, an exemplary set being the Höss’ elaborate garden lined with a grid of stone slab pathways interlocking at forty-five-degree angles. The score, written by Oscar-nominated composer Mica Levi, opens the film with an eerie overture that is bookended by an even more haunting finale after the final cut to black. Between those two musical showcases is an extremely minimalistic composition that is nonetheless deeply effective, inserting itself at key moments in the drama with alarming, almost alien-sounding tones.

And then there’s Glazer’s script, completely devoid of melodrama and riddled with cuttingly ironic lines of dialogue that are sure to make viewers squirm. “It gets so cold in winter you wouldn’t believe it,” Hedwig tells her visiting mother about the family’s reason for installing central heating. Glazer puts those words in the audience’s ears, but it is the image associated with them — men, women and children, all famished to the bone, their exposed bodies freezing into rigid boards in the bitter Polish winter — that gets seared in the mind.

Lines like that are what make “The Zone of Interest” such a bewildering watch. It is easy to think that unspeakable crimes like those enacted by the Nazis at Auschwitz and the countless other concentration camps across Europe can only be committed by plainly evil people. But Rudolf Höss, a real SS officer who was executed in 1947 for his role in the Holocaust, had none of the trappings of a plainly evil man. He was a caring husband and father of five. He enjoyed taking his family on lakeside picnics, and when his children couldn’t sleep at night, he lay in bed with them and read fairy tales aloud until they drifted off. Höss, in almost every sense of the word, was a normal man. But his job was killing Jews, and he devised the methods to do so in the most ruthlessly efficient way possible.

How can we reconcile the dual realities of this man’s life? More pressingly, what does the Höss family’s experience say about our own capacities for evil? Glazer’s excellent film is not one to provide easy answers, but it does offer an urgent warning: Good people, like everyone in Dana Auditorium on the night of March 7 surely thought themselves to be, need to be on guard not just against the physical threats of the world around them, but against the moral ones with the power to corrupt from within.        

Jack Torpey

Jack Torpey '24 (he/him) is an Arts and Culture Editor. He writes film reviews for the Reel Critic column.  

Jack is studying English with a minor in Film and Media Culture. Outside The Campus, he works as a peer writing tutor at the Writing Center and is a member of the Middlebury Consulting Group.