By now, any review of The Zone of Interest surely has to begin by stating the obvious – it is a really, really good film. The performances are uniformly excellent. The subject matter is delivered with unrelenting ferocity. There’s gorgeous, technically superb shots of idyllic, sun-kissed Polish countryside, soundtracked by distant gunshots and terrified wails. There’s nothing about The Zone of Interest that isn’t deeply impressive.
To my mind, a more interesting topic of discussion than whether or not the film has an embarrassment of artistic riches is whether or not it’s actually in any way pleasurable to watch. There’s an inherent problem with attempting to make a movie centred around any kind of atrocity, let alone one on the Holocaust’s scale. When you make the decision to go and watch The Zone of Interest, are you paying money to be filled with despair at the depths of cruelty that humanity can plumb? Why would you do this, when you could be watching, say, The Holdovers, or Poor Things, or whatever? Is it out of a sense of moral obligation?
Jonathan Glazer has a prolific and multifaceted career, but it seems plausible that a decent chunk of people reading this will know him best, as I did, for his 2013 sci-fi horror classic Under the Skin. That film, in which Scarlett Johansson prowls the streets of Glasgow, luring unsuspecting men into a sexual void and then drowning them in black goop, is sinister because of its ambiguities and surrealist flourishes. It is awfully good fun, despite being bleak, wintry, and theoretically joyless. When I went into The Zone of Interest, it was in the hope that Glazer had found a way of tastefully transplanting some of that strangeness onto a holocaust drama, that the style established in that film might serve a purpose in giving the subject matter a sort of freshness that, nonetheless, didn’t detract from its status as the 20thcentury’s most appalling nightmare.
And, indeed, there are little moments. There are brief periods where the screen is entirely blank, just a monochromatic bright red or inky black, and curious ambient droning fills the auditorium, the kind that could be soothing in certain contexts, or deeply worrisome in others. There are two scenes in which a girl attempts to hide fruit for prisoners at their work sites under cover of darkness, filmed so her body lights up luminous white against the night, giving her an unearthly glow. Most effective of all is the film’s conclusion, which I’ll refrain from spoiling, other than to say it’s a really unexpected and astonishingly powerful way to contextualise the events of the film, and doesn’t even require any of the visual or audio experimentation mentioned above to catch you completely unawares.
So yes, The Zone of Interest is worth watching for the cinematic experience, as well as the sense that sometimes you just have to engage with subject matter like this. It doesn’t pummel you into submission with the sheer terribleness of history. Instead, it coaxes a sort of slow burn disgust out of you. I left the cinema stunned and bewildered and feeling like I had experienced something wholly unique and worthwhile. And you are also reminded, again without being beaten over the head with it, that truly evil behaviour can flourish underneath surface level civility.
The concept of ‘the banality of evil,’ a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in her reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, is the theme that ties all of The Zone of Interest together. It is about Rudolf Hess, his wife and his children, living a vapidly charming rural existence, all picnics by the river and afternoons wiled away in a pristine garden, against the backdrop of Hess perpetuating a crime against humanity. Jonathan Glazer performs a highwire act in telling that story; he focuses on the mundanity of their day to day routine with just glimmers of the horrors going on directly outside their home; he directs a straightforward historical drama with just glimmers of a prestige horror film; he puts the monstrousness of Hess’ on full display with just glimmers of him being a loving father to his own children.
Had the balance of The Zone of Interest been even slightly off, it would be a very different, and far worse film. Instead, it’s a compelling triumph, deeply watchable even as it sickens you. It is a film from which, for one reason or another, you simply cannot look away.