The Zone of Interest

The banality of genocide

After the hundreds of films made about the Holocaust and specifically the Auschwitz extermination camp, you’d think it impossible to come up with a new and still effective approach to the subject matter. But Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin) has done just that in his adaptation of the Martin Amis novel. His daring, invasive film takes a phrase, “the banality of evil,” coined by German-American historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt, to frightening, quietly devastating extremes. 

The central characters are the camp commandant (Christian Friedel) and his wife (Sandra Huller). They and their five children have built an opulent home that actually shares a wall with the compound. There, they go about their daily business, entertaining friends and blithely selecting choice items stripped from recently incinerated Jews. Other scenes have top SS officers discussing, with equal detachment, the efficiency of various ways of burning millions of corpses.

None of the violence and unspeakable cruelty taking place on the other side of the wall is shown. But here’s where the film shines: you can hear distant screams, sporadic gunfire and throughout the movie, the almost subsonic roar of the ovens. It took home 2023’s Oscar for Best International Feature Film and another statuette for Best Sound. I would have been shocked if it hadn’t. Glaser gives the film strength by focusing on the disparity between what is seen and what is heard. 

All that said, it’s dramatically inert and in places (infra-red dream sequences and such) it walks the cusp of artistic pretension. Also, the undeniable emotional punch of the first half dissipates as the film goes on, and I can’t help but think a shorter treatment would have been better. 

Bottom line for this piece of observational cinema: Glazer has found a way to express evil without showing it, brilliantly leaving it to your imagination. This deliberately challenging film is not an easy sit, but it contains lessons we may need to re-learn as fascism stirs again. (105 min)