Oscar 2024: Give Jonathan Glazer Everything for The Zone of Interest

The British director has spent a decade working on this film and what he’s created is the best introduction to his inventive, obsessive mind.
Oscar 2024: Give Jonathan Glazer Everything for The Zone of Interest
Oscar 2024: Give Jonathan Glazer Everything for The Zone of Interest

Talking about how he shot The Zone of Interest (2023), director Jonathan Glazer described it as “Big Brother in the Nazi House”, referring to the reality TV franchise from the Nineties that revolutionised television programming and is the original from which India’s Bigg Boss is drawn. Much like the TV show, The Zone of Interest had an elaborate set in which hidden cameras were placed. The actors didn’t know where the cameras were and there was no trace of the film crew on the set (for the whole shoot, Glazer and others in the crew watched on monitors that were set up off-set). Unlike the TV show, the reality that unfolds on camera doesn’t ever feel amusing or distant enough to let us feel casually entertained by those performing on screen. The Zone of Interest is entertainment at its most compelling and its most disturbing, suffusing every banal detail with extraordinary craft and insight. 

The title of Glazer’s film, which he worked on for almost a decade before it finally came together, comes from a novel by Martin Amis. “Zone of interest” was the term that Nazis used to describe the area around a concentration camp, which applies particularly closely to the subjects of Glazer’s film since they literally shared a boundary wall with a concentration camp. Adding to the realism of The Zone of Interest was Glazer’s decision to shoot this intensely unsettling film on location in a vacant house just outside of the perimeter of the camp at Auschwitz. Not only was the house transformed to look like the home of the camp’s commander Rudolf Höss (played in the film by Christian Friedel), but gnawing at every frame of Glazer’s film is the subtle horror of practically sharing physical space with a site that was a key part of the Nazis’ “Final Solution”.

Among Glazer’s many inspired directorial calls in The Zone of Interest is the decision to train his focus upon the domestic life of the Höss family. Genocide and its signifiers remain on the fringes of this idyll that is so carefully constructed by Rudolf’s wife, the dedicated hausfrau Hedwig (played to chilling, brilliant perfection by Sandra Hüller who has been nominated in the best actress category, but for her performance in Anatomy of a Fall). Every part of her home is held in place by someone or something from the concentration camp next door. The domestic staff are inmates as are those who tend to the garden that is Hedwig’s pride and joy. We see a uniformed worker pour ashes over the flower bushes that Hedwig coos over with her baby, encouraging the infant to breathe in deeply. Glazer leaves the audience to piece together, at their own time and pace, whose ashes are being used to grow those flowers.

Matching the cool tones of The Zone of Interest’s visual is the restraint that Glazer exercises over his storytelling. This is a film that doesn’t allow the relief of catharsis. There’s no scene in which Hedwig or Rudolf are made to confront any consequence and neither does Glazer let us have the comfort of narrative devices like end slates that tell you what happened to Höss after the events shown on screen. He was arrested by Nazi hunters and his would be the last public execution in Poland, but Glazer doesn’t share this history with his viewers. Instead, in his final scenes, Glazer shows Höss consumed by work, confessing to his wife that while attending a grand party, all he was thinking of was how difficult it would be to gas everyone in that room because the ceilings are so high. The last we see of Höss is of him climbing down a flight of stairs. The frame is precise in its geometry and almost bleached of colour into monotone. The staircase is Escher-like in its continuity. This is Höss in his limbo, pausing to dry heave, before continuing on that perpetual climb, down to the depths of inhumanity. The only reprieve from the horror in The Zone of Interest is the defiant resistance of the Polish girl who hides food for inmates wherever she can and the film’s final scenes, which show the museum in present-day Auschwitz, which honours those whom the Nazis tried to erase from history.   

Perhaps the most terrifying meta detail of The Zone of Interest is the way in which the past is recreated in the present throughout this film, underscoring Glazer’s central point that this particular history is just a few steps away from being realised in the present. Not only is the Höss home recreated in meticulous detail, there is the outstanding sound design by Johnnie Burn, which is composed of noises from the present — drunk party-goers in contemporary Hamburg stand in for the drunken night-time revelry of Nazi guards; protestors and riots in Paris are used to convey the shouts of inmates. Running parallel to the idyll we see is the violence we hear. If it wasn’t chilling enough to know that the common sounds from the present can be transformed to bring to life a horrific past, the commercial release of The Zone of Interest has coincided with renewed conflict in Gaza and many commentators have noticed parallels between the Nazis of the past and the current Israeli government’s decisions in the present.        

Incidentally, Glazer is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. Speaking to The Guardian, Glazer said that when his father learnt about The Zone of Interest, he responded with “Why are you digging this up? Let it rot.” Glazer replied, “I really wish I could let it rot, but, no, Dad, it’s not in the past.” 

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