Dan Webster reviews "The Zone of Interest"
Despite his obvious talents as a filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino is not known for showing a whole lot of restraint. A scene near the end of his 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is evidence of that.
Few things in cinema, after all, are more electrifying than Leonardo DiCaprio using a flamethrower to immolate a young woman in a swimming pool.
The same might be said of Reservoir Dogs, although only if Tarantino hadn’t rethought a scene in which Michael Madsen tortures a police officer. In that scene, which features Madsen cutting off the officer’s ear to the tune of the Stealers Wheel song “Stuck in the Middle With You,” Tarantino had originally planned to show the whole gory process in gruesome closeup.
But good sense prevailed, and Tarantino ended up shifting his camera away, leaving the act of violence to play out only in his audience’s imagination.
That decision, though, arguably makes the scene even more effective. All too often, what we conjure up in our minds can be far worse than anything a filmmaker, no matter how talented, can create onscreen. And that very idea of leaving things to the imagination is what writer-director Jonathan Glazer uses as the basis for his Oscar-nominated film The Zone of Interest.
Based on the real-life story of Rudolf and Hedwig Höss, The Zone of Interest is set during World War II—most likely around 1943—and Höss is serving as commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, which he had helped design and then developed into a competently run killing machine.
Unlike so many other films that have explored the death-camp experience, most notably Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List, Glazer doesn’t focus on life within Auschwitz’s walls. Instead, working from and expanding on the 2014 novel by Martin Amis bearing the same title, he chooses to center on the mundane, day-to-day experience of the Höss family itself.
Living next to the camp, the family clearly enjoys an upper-middle-class existence, which involves everything from holding dinner parties to Hedwig’s attempts to make her backyard into a veritable garden. The chilling subtext Glazer desires becomes evident when Hedwig asks Rudolf to bring home anything he can—chocolate for example, or maybe a stylish fur coat—both of which clearly come from those unfortunate souls moving through the camp.
And many did simply move through, some of the estimated three and a half million prisoners dying within hours of arriving at the camp by train.
Not that Glazer makes any of this obvious in his film. Instead, he depends on what we already know, Nazi crimes against humanity having been documented in numerous books, movies, plays and television shows. All this, plus ever-present visual inferences, add to the film’s haunting atmosphere. Everything that occurs in The Zone of Interest, in fact, is accompanied by some sense—but only a sense—of the larger scheme of death.
A walk though Hedwig’s garden might feature smoke emanating from a train engine passing by in the background—and do we need to be told that the train is transporting people, mostly Jews, to their deaths? Gunfire pops up regularly, sounding no more threatening than a woodpecker’s tap-tap-tap on a tree trunk. On one singular occasion, faint screams accompany a guard’s shouted order to take some rule-breaking inmate to the river to be drowned.
Glazer portrays all this bookended by two long minutes of a blank screen, paired with foreboding music. Near the film’s end, he inserts scenes of today’s Auschwitz, with workers patiently cleaning as they pass by the remnants—discarded clothing, mostly—of so much murder. He breaks his stylistic conceit further a couple of times to artfully portray a young woman through a night-capture lens planting apples, presumably for the inmates to find and devour.
Those latter scenes, however, are the only moments of compassion that The Zone of Interest even attempts to portray. The rest is a powerfully understated allusion to one of the 20th century’s great horror stories.
A story that, for some of us, plays out ever more frighteningly in the depths of our individual minds.
For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.
Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for Spokesman.com/7blog.