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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: The Zone of Interest (2023)

Just where do you start when talking about The Zone of Interest, the newest film by the far too elusive Jonathan Glazer (only his fourth film in a career now spanning over 30 years)?  Having made serious waves at major festivals (namely Cannes and tiff), The Zone of Interest finally gets its wider, although still super limited, release to the public. But do we really need another Holocaust film? Just what else can still be said about one of the darkest periods in human history that hasn’t already been said so effectively before?  Considering what is happening in the world today, its release couldn’t be timelier. The Zone of Interest is an urgent reprisal of its unfortunately all too familiar subject matter that allows Jonathan Glazer and his team to create a truly subversive work of art that serves as a remembrance of the past, an observation of the current, and finally, a deafening warning of what could potentially come - a definitive portrait of man’s relationship with evil and how that cycle continues to rear its hideous head.

Made up of multiple stories from witnesses and survivors from the time, as well as being very loosely inspired by Martin Amis' novel of the same name, Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest follows Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his family (the always brilliant Sandra Hüller playing his dutiful housewife Hedwig) as he looks to make Auschwitz the crown jewel of Nazi Germany’s death camps. But this isn’t your cut-and-paste biographical or Holocaust film, it takes place mostly within the confines of their villa situated right next to Auschwitz itself.

Jonathan Glazer is one of the few true auteurs working today, a sublime artist who, as mentioned before, doesn’t make as many films as I would like him to. But when he does, it’s an event worth taking note of. He first made a name for himself with some of the greatest music videos and adverts ever (UNKLE, Radiohead, Massive Attack, Jamiroquai, to name a few). 10 years after his last feature-length Under the Skin, Glazer may have just made his finest work to date – a passion project that is as beautiful as it is disturbing. 

Unlike other Holocaust films, The Zone of Interest primes its focus on the perpetrators, rather than its victims. This is by intricate design. Structurally and aesthetically speaking, the film very much feels like Chantal Akerman’s groundbreaking  Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) in that it finds interest in the everyday mundane of its subject, and how those routines provide a very telling picture of who our subject/s are. The opening 30 minutes or so of The Zone of Interest showcases the everyday routines of this family situated in a completely insane environment. The sons swim and play in the garden with the children of other officers, Hedwig gossips with the wives of other officers; Rudolf leaves for work as if he is heading to the office for his 9-5 job, vying for bigger promotions with the hopes of enriching their lives even further. They even have a little white picket fence with a loyal dog, and to top it all off, a large garden where Hedwig proudly grows and nurtures her flowers and vegetables. It has all the characteristics of a serene domestic drama about a family searching for their dream of the perfect home. But what Jonathan Glazer and his team do so brilliantly here is essentially layer two separate films on top of each other, one sonic, one visual, both telling two different stories. Like the opening sequence of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the picture-perfect suburban (or in this film’s case, rural) life is only for show, revealing a far darker underbelly teeming beneath the surface. Here, it is all around them.

From the very opening moments, we find ourselves staring into the blackest, deepest abyss. Mica Levi’s anxious and unnerving score plays over 5 minutes of this bottomless pit. A distorted choir howls through the darkness before we finally open on a sunny day out on the embankments of a river. The Höss family, accompanied by friends, take in the bright shining light of the sun as they enjoy their day out. It’s as perfect as a day could ever get. But very soon we find the orchestra of nature being replaced by that of an entirely different film, and it’s with the sound design of The Zone of Interest that we find just how subversive and chilling Glazer’s inspection of evil is. 

We are never shown acts of violence in The Zone of Interest, but its existence is felt. The presence of the evil with which these people are embracing quite literally peeks its head into every shot. Its existence is truly inescapable, from the rooftops and barbed wire fences of the camp rising over their walls, to the bellowing puffs of white smoke from the trains, to the nightmarish red hellfire of smoke gushing from the ovens. But the underlying horror is most felt through the soundscapes created in The Zone of Interest as the camp’s voice constantly hums and buzzes throughout. As mentioned before, the violence isn't ever shown but heard constantly throughout. Factories, trains, burning ovens, screams and the occasional gunshots merge to form a constant orchestral hell on Earth. But the Nazi home residents go about their days as if all of this is normal. As said before, they play in the garden, lounge about in the sun and go to work as though this is just another day. Few characters show visual discomfort in all of it, but it’s the Höss’ family that embraces it so easily as they indulge in the suffering of their neighbours: the kids play with gold teeth like they’re trading cards, Hedwig tries on the coats, jewelry and lipstick of their former wearers and finally, Rudolph himself partakes in the many lilacs at his disposal (this is what he refers to the attractive female prisoners of the camp as), before traversing down tunnels to wash himself clean of them. And all of this is captured and performed with such normalcy, such mundane plainness. Making it far scarier than you could imagine.

Glazer and his cinematographer Łukasz Żal worked closely with the production designer before constructing a replica of the very same house Höss and his family lived in at Auschwitz. From there, they hid and shot with 10 cameras at a time all over the house with no film crew or gear present (the entire film was naturally lit, no film lights present), all operated from the basement of the house, offering an unobtrusive environment for the actors to go about their character’s domestic family life, fully getting into the habitual routine of their daily lives. It’s a stroke of genius that feels like an art installation piece, and thanks to this, helps the film feel even more eerie in how similar our daily routines could be to theirs. It's what makes The Zone of Interest so effective and so disturbing in how it places us within the lives of these people. It’s genuinely terrifying how plain and somewhat boring this all seems to them - completely normal when we know what we are watching is totally abnormal.

Thanks to the unusual surveillance-like method of filming its subjects in the house, Glazer allows a complete sense of trust and freedom in his performers that, as said before, allows them to fully immerse themselves in the lives of these people. Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller are extraordinary playing such evil people in such a normal manner. They aren’t looking to normalize their behavior but give us an idea of just how comfortable this madness was for them.

It makes for such an uncomfortable viewing experience because this is a mirror image of what is happening today. As genocides are happening across the globe, we too have numbed ourselves to the atrocities that sit on our doorstep, normalizing something that is anything but. In what is some of the film’s most visually and aurally striking (and completely unexpected) moments, Glazer switches to night vision mode. Although extremely jarring, it fits perfectly within the message of what Glazer is trying to say. He uses it in the key scenes of us following a young Polish girl, one who goes about hiding apples in the dirt for starving prisoners. In a film that views evil with a normal camera lens, one that has its characters embracing said evil in clear, beautiful daylight, Glazer opts to go unusual, completely otherworldly in showing human kindness and hope in an environment entirely devoid of it. Later on, with that same girl, we find what is the most sobering and powerful moment within The Zone of Interest. 

**SPOILERS While hiding apples for prisoners, she finds a scrap of paper hidden in the dirt containing sheet music. This is the song Sunbeams, a piece by Auschwitz survivor Joseph Wulf. His real voice introduces the song in Yiddish (he unfortunately committed suicide in the early 70s) before the girl plays it on a piano, the lyrics of the song aren’t heard but shown in subtitles. Despite us seeing the occasional prisoner passing through, this is the only real voice from the victims we experience within The Zone of Interest, a fighting cry fading in the distance as the phrase “Never again” becomes an empty statement. SPOILERS**

**SPOILERS In Joshua Oppenheimer’s horrifying documentary The Act of Killing (2012), which is a major influence on The Zone of Interest, we follow a thug who, during the Indonesian Mass Killings of 1965-1966, partook in the mass murder of the ethnic Chinese population that resulted in over a million dead. Hailed as a hero by many locals, Joshua Oppenheimer asked this man to recreate some of his most memorable tortures and murders as scenes from movies in any genre he would like. What unfolds is a terrifying unraveling of a man's atrocities of his past, which eventually leads to one of the greatest moments in cinema: He wretches trying to recreate one last favourite murder of his, his body desperately trying to reject the evils with which he once felt complete pride in. Glazer is inspired by this in an extraordinary sequence of events towards the end of the film that has Rudolph Höss standing in a hallway after his position at Auschwitz is all but confirmed. He begins to retch uncontrollably before finding himself looking down two passageways enveloped in darkness. Glazer then takes us to the present as janitors go about cleaning the Auschwitz museum, once again acting normal amongst the completely absurd as they wash glass displays housing mountains of shoes, dusting and wiping ovens, vacuuming hallways as the hanging pictures of its victims watch on. We cut back to Höss as he appears to be looking ahead towards the legacy he is about to build, showing no remorse. SPOILERS**

Jonathan Glazer has crafted an experience like no other, making it the most unique and quite possibly, most unsettling Holocaust film I have ever seen. There are no direct acts of violence portrayed on screen, only implied by the incredibly densely layered sound design by Johnnie Burn paired with a nightmarish score by the always marvelous Mica Levi. And despite it being specific in its historical subject, it’s more relevant than ever, forcing us to stare deep into the inky black depths of evil that still stir in men. It’s now up to us to make sure that we stand by the phrase “Never again”, using films like this as a stern reminder that we should never allow such atrocities to be embraced and normalized. The Zone of Interest is as quiet as it is loud, an essential, timely piece of art that might just be Jonathan Glazer’s defining masterpiece. 

Where you can watch it: In select theatres (SA, UK, USA, Australia 22nd February)

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