Film Of Interest

10th March 2024

This extraordinary film is simultaneously powerful and boring. 

It is conceived not as an unfolding story, but as a passive witnessing. It is a film with little plot, limited camerawork, and mumbled words. Throughout, an unsettling tinnitus suggests there is more at play. Over the wall. Out of view. 

The movie’s title, The Zone of Interest, is a literal translation of the German compound-word Interessengebeit. In English, the phrase suggests simple delineation; come thus far, and no further.

But like many aspects of this gripping, symmetrical work of art, simplicity hides its opposite. 

The ‘Zone’ in question describes the 40 km² around Auschwitz, Poland which, by 1942, housed three camps: Auschwitz I (destination of those infamous trains, and locus of ‘selection’ which Hollywood has dramatised in many scene-chewing performances); Auschwitz II Birkenau; and Auschwitz III Monowitz. 

The ‘Interest’ refers to matters financial, rather than matters secretive. Auschwitz was a camp of extermination and also the site of industrial slave-labour. Monowitz, for example, was slated as the new site for I.G. Farben to manufacture liquid rubber and liquid fuel, central for the German economy and war effort. It was built using 10,000 mostly-Jewish forced labourers. 

Because Auschwitz was a big play for the Third Reich, its Kommandant must also be an important person, accorded important privileges. Indeed it was so, and Rudolf Höss (an historical person, played by Christian Friedel) is, superficially, the film’s main protagonist. His charming family villa and gardens share a wall with the death camp, and are the film’s principal location. 

British director, Jonathan Glazer, based his film loosely on the 2014 novel of the same name, by Martin Amis. The British author, in contemporaneous interviews during the book’s launch, described his desire to demonstrate understanding of what happened in the death camps, but to avoid melodrama in communicating its meaning. 

Some artists, Amis claimed, describe Auschwitz’s horrors with a tad too much zeal. Nabokov calls it ‘literary lechery’ – the act of trading on calamity for its emotional potential, whilst holding little curiosity for the calamity itself.

The Zone Of Interest makes a sacred pact with this thought. 

Glazer’s film is a tour de force of implication. Constantly aware of the looming death camp, the film uses its audiences’ knowledge of 20th century history as its bridge. Horror is delivered by a devastating sound universe which documents shootings, screaming, train arrivals, and pandemonium – interspersed with riverside birdsong. The camera observes detail in the Kommandant’s life, amid ample gardens, a swimming pool for the kids, and fresh-grown kohlrabi for their nutritious salads. 

The movie’s plot-line is an exercise in banality. Its highpoint, and only moment of familial tension, is a proposed change of jobs for Höss, away from Auschwitz. His wife, Hedwig (played by a masterful Sandra Hüller), argues that she stay with the kids in the villa. They are well settled here. And the children love the kohlrabi. For a woman of peasant upbringing, she knows how well she has landed. Her friends call her the ‘Queen of Auschwitz’, much to her delight, in 1944.

Hedwig is portrayed as fully within the normal zone of humanity – emotionally closed, rather than cruel. The movie observes her husband as a diligent bureaucrat, rather than a totem of evil. 

Yet, the audience has information that changes the meaning of all we see.

We are co-authors of the film’s real story, and the act of collaboration imparts a tinnitus all of its own. One hereby shared, with you.

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