Sunday, January 28, 2024


Writer-director Jonathan Glazer’s project is taking sub-genres that have hardened into particular closed modes and pushing out the walls until we see them from fresh angles. From these unusual perspectives he keeps us somehow entranced and alienated at the same moment by the way the films, so simultaneously stiff and slippery, get away from the expected. There’s his gangster movie drilled down into intimate interior discomfort in Sexy Beast, the ghostly return of Birth refracted through haunted confusions and chilly melodrama, and the alien visitation of Under the Skin that pulses and squirms under haunted tactile exploration and bodily ambiguity. Now we have The Zone of Interest, a Holocaust movie kept entirely within the life of an Auschwitz commander and his family. We see the camp’s smokestacks, guard towers, and barbed wire just over the family’s brick fence that walls them off from the systematic murders with which they’re inextricably tied. Certainly we can load the outside edges of the frame with the weight of historical context on our own, but it’s the muffled hints of screams and shouts and gunshots on a near-constant distant background hum that really sell the horror we can’t see. He won’t let us forget. He makes the images deliberately still and ugly, the camera locked down in frames that are so transparently digital, photographed by Łukasz Żal with harsh lighting accentuating the hard-edged realism of the pixels. He makes us watch naturalistic domestic scenes, stuck with them as blood runs colder. Our only glimpse of life outside the family is shot in photonegative, fitting for a world turned upside-down.

The film frames the actors unflatteringly, with no sense of posing for a camera, in blocking that feels pseudo-documentarian. But it never once feels unplanned—the details of dust and teeth and water and snow and fog are so potent and poetically evocative of the unspoken. Glazer will occasionally let a black screen or quotidian detail linger—flowers blooming in the mud. This pushes against endurance, reminding us we’re trapped as witnesses in this historical nightmare. The spare, plunking, droning Mica Levi score further enhances that feeling of total envelopment in this ice-cold moment. Within, we see the daily struggles of family life—kids, parents, co-workers, bosses. A mother (Sandra Hüller) wants to build a nice place for her children, a garden, a birthday, a day at the lake. A father (Christian Friedel) hopes to get promoted. A sudden shift in bureaucracy threatens to transfer him away from his domestic comfort, and there the narrative logic of watching a movie might threaten to take over and cause you to root for him to figure this out and keep his family together. And yet the inescapable fact of what, exactly, his job details works to prevent that rooting interest. Such casual monstrosity, such normalized cruelty, such mechanical, technical terror, right next door: it’s all so routine. One day he dictates a letter to an architect, starting it with a tossed off “Heil Hitler, etcetera.” He speaks with his wife about their perfect family home. By night, the light of the crematorium illuminates his daughters’ bedroom. More than just an embodiment of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, this becomes a film looking down the dark corridor of history and listening to the victims’ screams echoing across time and space.

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