In a way, The Zone of Interest, a selection of the 2023 Toronto International Film Fest, is an interfamilial drama. If you strip away the location, the time period, and the history, husband and wife Rudolf (Christian Friedel) and Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), are trying to build a home for their children. Rudolf is stressed at work because of a new promotion that will take him away from the family for a prolonged period of time. Hedwig rules the home; overseeing the team of cleaners, ensuring that the children make it to school on time, and tending to her sprawling garden. Their relationship is strained, as all relationships are when work duties become overwhelming and the family falls by the wayside.
What is a story if you take away its location, time period, and history? In theory, by removing these attributes, a film can speak to lasting or enduring aspects of the human condition. In some cases, however, place and time are essential to a narrative. The familial drama of The Zone of Interest unfolds in the final days of World War II and in the shadow of Auschwitz. Lazy days lounging in the backyard are punctuated with rapid gunshots, a near-constant cloud of smoke hangs in the air, and the family’s young baby isn’t the only one responsible for loud bouts of screaming and crying. Hedwig and Rudolf’s family’s livelihood is directly intertwined with the deaths of millions of Jewish people. Rudolf is the concentration camp’s commandant and a widely respected member of the Nazi party. Hedwig’s sprawling, beautifully tended garden is set against the tall, barbed wire-covered brick wall of Auschwitz. She grows vines to try to hide the walls and ignore the atrocities that are happening mere feet from the family home.
Despite Hedwig’s best efforts, it is impossible to ignore the horrors of Auschwitz. Director Jonathan Glazer begins the film with a title card that slowly fades to a blank screen. That empty image stays on the screen long enough to make an audience wonder if there’s something wrong with the projector. It’s only as the film progresses that you realize why Glazer leaves you staring at a blank screen for so long. He’s asking the audience to be a more active viewer than they might be used to being. The terrible events of The Zone of Interest never take place front and center. There’s no spotlight on the atrocities. By opening the film as he does, Glazer is training the audience to look beyond the focus of the camera and to listen more acutely.
What’s most surprising about The Zone of Interest is how boring it is. Not lackluster in the sense that the film is missing something or a slog to watch; quite the opposite. Instead, it’s a masterclass in being reserved. In pop culture, audiences are used to seeing Nazis portrayed as larger than life in their capacity for evil, two steps away from being cartoonish villains twirling their mustaches. This portrayal takes away from an audience’s ability to understand how fundamentally monstrous they are. The Zone of Interest flips that trope on its head and shows the audience the banality of evil. The film may be one of the only movies about World War II that is more concerned with concentration camp administrative paperwork than it is about the actual camp or the prisoners.
The Zone of Interest is a testament to the concept of restraint on film. Glazer could have spent most of the movie’s runtime within the camp and shown the experiences of the Jewish prisoners. Their trauma could have been the focus, as it has been in many other films, but The Zone of Interest is concerned with how these injustices came to be. Who are the people making these decisions? What are their families like? There’s no effort to make Rudolf and Hedwig likable or redeemable (nor should there be), but they are complex, interesting characters as the leads of The Zone of Interest.
So much of The Zone of Interest is happening on a small scale that more than one watch is needed to fully understand everything that’s on display here. This review is merely scratching the surface, and each subsequent viewing will peel back another haunting, unsettling layer of this monstrosity of a slow burn. The film is haunting and lingering, forcing viewers to mull over the complexity of its images, themes, and subtextual implications. The Zone of Interest begs for attention, no matter how difficult it is to watch.