June Butler explores Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar-nominated film, The Zone of Interest.

Written and directed by Jonathan Glazer, The Zone of Interest is based on a 2014 book by Martin Amis. Upon reading the then unfinished book, Glazer placed an option on the manuscript and decided to make a film. Paul and Hannah Doll, the original main characters in the tome were both loosely based on Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz between May 1940 to November 1943, and his wife Hedwig (nee Hensel). Glazer selected to use the historical figures over the fictional ones because it lent the story a greater sense of authenticity. 

Much of the tale is situated in an idyllic house with a beautiful walled garden. Planted with lush, whispering rushes, flowers in bloom, ferny fronds, and a tiny swimming pool with a wooden slide, it is the epitome of pastoral charm and peaceful rustic harmony. Within this beacon of domestic calm, Rudolf and Hedwig Höss live with their five children. They entertain friends, drink tea, gossip, sleep and play in their own personal haven. Rudolf leaves home, crosses a small track, mounts a horse, and goes to work which is literally yards away – employment consists of overseeing the brutal concentration camp of Auschwitz. There is a sinister, constant strain of noise emitting from the site. It sounds like the roar of flames within a huge vessel, engulfing and raging without respite. Moments after Höss disappears, sounds of spasmodic gunfire break out coupled with shouting guards, cries of fear, then silence. Until the shots ring out again. The action plays out again and again to a background of ominous humming. Scenes within the camp itself are never shown. All that can be heard are the shrieks and howls of distress.   

Within the house itself, Glazer set up static cameras capturing day-to-day activities of the family and their servants. Actors moving through the rooms exited via one door and were captured closing the same door from the opposite side. The style of cinematography provides a more realistic perception when viewing the drama from afar, allowing the narrative to be more open to personal interpretation. Glazer’s economy in using close-ups omits the need to decipher emotion, leaving audiences to come to their own conclusions when considering if Hedwig or Rudolf have compassion for the people they are victimising. Witnessed from afar, it is easier to apply a mien of merely being inconsiderate and selfish instead of opting for the far more ugly assumption which is that of heartless brutality.  

Early scenes show Hedwig twirling and posing in front of a full-length mirror while wearing a fur coat. She pulls the collar up, pushes her hands into the pockets and fishes out lipstick. Hedwig checks the colour, applying it to her lips. She leans into the mirror, decides the hue is not to her liking, and wipes off the cosmetic. It is obvious that Hedwig’s ‘coat’ does not belong to her and has been taken from one of the tragic prisoners within the camp walls. That Hedwig is proud of her home becomes evident from the pride she takes in showing it off. She hosts regular tea mornings with wives of other SS soldiers and is shown fussing over guests. Boasting about finding a diamond in a tube of toothpaste confiscated from prisoners, Hedwig brags about her discovery, maintaining that the inmates are up to numerous tricks, but she is aware of their duplicity. When Hedwig’s mother Linna (Imogen Kogge) comes to stay, Hedwig awkwardly shows her around the house. Apologising for the haphazard layout, Hedwig claims that when the family first arrived at the house, several rooms had to be built on to the original construction and the final result left the design somewhat disorganised. Hedwig does not have a close relationship with her mother if the stilted exchange between the two is anything to go by. In an effort to break the ice, while Hedwig is giving her mother a tour of the walled-garden, Linna recalls the Jewish woman Hedwig once worked for. She wonders if Hedwig’s one-time employer is now in Auschwitz. There is a brief instant where the emotionality of the moment can either fall into regret and pathos or swing back to sadistic malice – Hedwig chooses the latter and bewails the fact that when the woman’s belongings were being auctioned off, Hedwig’s attempts to buy her curtains were thwarted by the wife of another SS officer who outbid her. 

Slowly the story unfolds as commonplace daily occurrences are twinned with indescribable horror. Hedwig lies in bed beside her husband and pleads with him to take her on holiday – she mentions a spa they both once attended and giggles as she reminisces about the luxury of being pampered. Meanwhile, one of her sons plays with gold human teeth in his bunkbed. In an attic room, a Polish maid drinks alcohol directly from a bottle and ignores Hedwig’s toddler daughter Annegret, who wails endlessly. At night, a local girl hides apples for the inmates to find when they arrive for work at a location outside the camp. Linna Hensel lies on a deckchair facing the prison as chimneys belch out smoke and flames. Children play in the garden. Rudolf Höss’s fellow officers gather outside his home to sing happy birthday. There is a scene of a gardener turning earth over and planting seeds with ash being deposited on the topsoil. The implication is that the residue comes from human remains taken from the crematorium. Höss brings his children to swim and play in the Vistula, which lies downstream from Auschwitz. A human jawbone is discovered. Panic stricken, Höss orders his offspring to immediately get out of the river. Later scenes show Hedwig scrubbing her children as they sit in a bath. An angry Höss phones personnel inside the camp and loudly chides them for being so careless as to allow human remains flow into the water.  

Director Jonathan Glazer steers a steady course through the narrative, emphasising how perfect life is within the Höss family home – a place of shelter and wellbeing. Insinuating a sense of normality and peace, he initially inserts only mundane events into the story. Then slowly other more jarring sequences begin to appear. Hedwig’s rage when her mother suddenly leaves the home without warning is one such occurrence. She comments sadistically to a maid that her husband could scatter the young girl’s ashes across fields, and no one would be any the wiser. It is this unsettling overlay of routinely innocuous happenings contrasted by moments of total revulsion, that gives The Zone of Interest such an edge and makes it so disturbing. 

In her book on the banality of evil, recounting Adolf Eichmann’s Jerusalem trial, Hannah Arendt wrote:  

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal”.

Wickedness is not readily evident through monitoring the behaviour of another – every one of us acts in a certain, usually socially accepted way when being observed. Malevolence can take on the guise of waking up each day, going to work, reading a newspaper, enjoying family outings, and taking pleasure in listening to music. It is routine, commonplace, and dreadfully frighteningly ordinary. The true meaning of evil is living beside a concentration camp and standing by as over a million people are murdered. 

The Zone of Interest is in cinemas from 15th December 2023.




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