On Cinema

Discomfort Zone

I recommend The Zone of Interest with the greatest caution: it’s not an easy watch

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

How do you tell the story of the Holocaust on film? With Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg, the master of modern popular cinema, took a conventional approach, one also adopted by this year’s One Life: finding a heroic narrative of resistance.

But without diminishing the subjects of either of those films, the problem is that a glance at the statistics of the Holocaust tell us that the victories over evil were rare exceptions, barely denting the incomprehensible totals.

Statistics feature several times in The Zone of Interest, an adaptation of Martin Amis’s novel about the home life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss. Early on, we see him take a pitch meeting from a pair of engineers who believe they’ve developed an improved oven, which will be able to operate constantly, destroying thousands and thousands of … well, of what?

No one ever quite says, either then or later, when Rudolf and his colleagues discuss percentages and capacity, as they prepare, with some excitement, to handle the big job of Hungary.

This is characteristic of the film. The horror is always off-screen, hinted at obliquely as a servant washes Höss’s boots, or when you suddenly realise where his wife Hedwig is getting all her new clothes from. Director Jonathan Glazer keeps the family at a distance, both from the camera and emotionally. We are presented with a series of almost sterile tableaux of unexciting domesticity: a picnic, a birthday party, a visiting grandparent.

The contrast is delivered by the soundtrack. There’s little music. Instead, always at the edge of hearing, there is the noise of industrial slaughter: grinding, burning. Was that a gunshot? Is that someone screaming?

The gap is between what you see and what you know is happening. The foreground events feel recognisable: Rudolf is an ambitious bureaucrat, whose efficiency at his job has seen him rise from his humble beginnings. Hedwig meanwhile is proud of the house and status that have come with her husband’s success.

Sandra Hüller as Hedwig in The Zone of Interest

Her mother used to clean other people’s houses, and now Hedwig has servants of her own. She sees her older children off to school and takes the baby round her garden, looking at the flowers. So far, so bland. And then there is a glimpse of a different, equally familiar sight: an SS uniform, a watchtower, a chimney.

Glazer gives us no heroes. But neither do we get moustache-twirling villains. Rudolf and Hedwig are, we’re left in no doubt, fully complicit in what is happening on the other side of the wall, but its appalling wickedness has become a routine part of their lives.

In one scene, Hedwig pursues Rudolf after he reveals he’s been reassigned. The camera tracks her as she walks briskly round the outside of the worst place on earth to catch her husband and tell him that she wants to stay, that she won’t give up her house and garden. A normal argument in an utterly abnormal context.

How does Hedwig keep the horror out of her mind? We never find out. But perhaps we already know. The modern world is hardly short of things it’s easier not to think about. What walls have we put up, what sounds and smells are we pretending aren’t there?

Glazer isn’t Spielberg. His film rejects the conventional tools of cinematic storytelling, both in technique and in structure. There is no one to identify with or root for, nothing at all to enjoy. On those grounds alone, it probably needs to be seen in the cinema, where you can’t escape. I suspect viewers streaming on a sofa at home will swiftly find themselves seeking the comfort of distractions.

There are other things about The Zone of Interest that are distancing: art house cinema techniques that I personally find obscure. Perhaps on a second viewing they would fit into place: there are layers here that would repay study. I’m not sure though that I will watch it again. I recommend it only with the greatest caution: it’s not an easy watch. But in the days since I saw it, I’ve found my mind returning to it.

Morten Hee Andersen, Mads Mikkelsen and Amanda Collin in The Promised Land

So much so that it has taken over this column. I’d planned to spend much more time on a film that’s a little more conventional. The Promised Land is a sort of Western, the west in question being Denmark’s.

Mads Mikkelsen, recognisable as a baddie from whatever was the last Hollywood film you saw, is Captain Ludvig Kahlen, an impoverished former soldier who in 1755 takes up the challenge of cultivating the heaths of Jutland. His secret weapon is a new crop that will grow anywhere: the potato. Unfortunately the local magistrate, an enjoyably fiendish Simon Bennebjerg, has other ideas.

Vaguely inspired by true events — Kahlen was a real figure — this is a tale that slowly builds as the two men circle each other like the characters in a Sergio Leone gunfight. Mikkelsen makes a great unheroic hero, a man unwilling to fight but unable to give in. The supporting cast are excellent and the landscape looks beautiful.

Finally, if you’re in the mood simply for popcorn, Moon Thieves is a Hong Kong heist movie that apparently stars members of the pop group Mirror (no, me neither). A gang of implausibly handsome young men steal luxury watches and try to avoid getting killed by mobsters. It has nothing to say, and great fun saying it.

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