It’s just a woman trying on a fur coat alone in her room, and sampling a lipstick. It’s just a few friends discussing toothpaste orders over coffee in the kitchen. It’s just a housewife showing off her new garden and children’s pool, or a dad taking his kids fishing in a river.
The crucial context is that these scenes are occurring only a stone wall away from the gas chambers and crematoriums of Auschwitz. And it’s their very mundanity that makes them evil — the “banality of evil,” to use Hannah Arendt’s well-known phrase. In his meticulous and harrowing film “The Zone of Interest,” writer-director Jonathan Glazer has found a way to convey evil without ever depicting the horror itself. But though it escapes our eyes, the horror assaults our senses in other, deeper ways.
How does one even begin to depict the Holocaust? The question has challenged filmmakers for eight decades. Attempts to humanize the horror often lose sight of the scale of the genocide. And efforts to do justice to the unimaginable scale can lose sight of the human suffering.
Glazer has chosen a different route. Shooting, incredibly, on location, his entry point is an ordinary German couple trying to build a prosperous life for their family. It just happens to be at Auschwitz. And it just happens to be Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the notorious real-life former commandant of the camp, and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, brilliant in a terribly difficult role).
Höss spends his days overseeing the “processing” of trainloads of people, most sent directly to the gas chambers. Then he comes home, where he and Hedwig eat dinner, celebrate birthdays, read their kids bedtime stories, make plans for a spa holiday.
Or they go on picnics, which is where we begin, on an idyllic afternoon, the Höss family picking berries and sunning themselves. As darkness falls, they head back to their pristine two-story villa on the camp’s outskirts (in what the Nazis called the “zone of interest”).
It takes a while before we see the telltale signs: the camp watchtower, and later the flames blackening the sky. But we do hear sounds. Awful sounds. Dogs barking. Gunshots. Cries of fear, yelling. And the ugly roar — is it the belching chimney, or the arriving trains, or both? It all melds together, and you can’t get it out of your head. (Mica Levi wrote the chilling score.)
Hedwig surely hears all this. And so, we wonder what she’s thinking as she takes a nice fur coat into the bedroom and models it in the mirror, finding it to her liking, and ordering her maid to repair the lining.
The subtext, not spelled out: The coat, and lipstick in the pocket, is from a Jewish prisoner, no longer alive. Soon we hear chatter over coffee in the kitchen, about toothpaste. Hedwig has found a diamond hidden in a tube — those prisoners are crafty, she says — and so she is “ordering” more toothpaste, again turning the mundane into the truly hideous.
Nearby, between Rudolf and some visiting businessmen, the chatter is perhaps more consequential, yet just as incongruous. They are discussing a more efficient model of oven — the best mass cremation system money can buy, you might say. The words “burning,” “cooling” and “reloading” are heard; the word “murder” is not.
Life continues: An outing with the kids on a tranquil nearby river in a new kayak, Dad’s birthday gift, leads to an unexpected unpleasantness. Standing in the river fishing, Höss realizes that human remains are floating by.
Yet Hedwig Höss loves her home. She proudly shows off her growing garden, with its small swimming pool and wooden slide, to her visiting mother, who murmurs supportively: “You’ve really landed on your feet, my child.” Hedwig is proud. Her husband calls her “the Queen of Auschwitz,” she notes.
Adapting loosely from the Martin Amis novel of the same name, but choosing a real-life protagonist, Glazer spent years combing through records to piece together the Höss family history, and built his set for their home some 200 yards from where the real one stood.
The meticulousness with which Glazer and production designer Chris Oddy render this home — with its baby blue-colored beds in the kids’ room, only feet from putrid camp barracks — is an achievement. Glazer also has set up multiple surveillance-style cameras, tracking different pieces of action, and the effect is that of a documentary, with dialogue that often feels unscripted.
As for what happens over the wall, we see Höss there only once, in tight closeup. Hedwig certainly never crosses over. “They’ll have to drag me out of here,” she says, when her husband tells her they’re being transferred out. And she demands successfully to stay at Auschwitz, with the children. “We’re living how we dreamed we would,” she says. (Glazer found evidence from a former gardener that such a conversation happened.)
The film ends just as Höss learns — in what amounts to a promotion — that he’ll return to Auschwitz to step up the Final Solution with the annihilation of Hungary’s Jews, arriving at the rate of 12,000 a day.
And the real-life Höss did return, to implement more mass murder (he was later executed for war crimes), and to his wife, who’d found a way to grow beautiful flowers regardless of what was happening on the very same soil.
Surely few of us can imagine modeling a fur coat ripped from a doomed prisoner. But what Glazer is trying to tell us with such scenes — and also in his jolting final minutes — is that history is full of examples of ordinary, unremarkable people finding ways to block out the suffering of others. And that if we always assume we are so vastly different, we may be losing the chance to learn from the past.
“The Zone of Interest,” an A24 release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association “for thematic material, some suggestive material and smoking.” Running time: 105 minutes. Four stars out of four.
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