Oscars 2024: Holocaust and Hope in The Zone of Interest

Writer-director Jonathan Glazer has been nominated for his screenplay, which draws on history and uses a novel by Martin Amis as its starting point.
Oscars 2024: Holocaust and Hope in The Zone of Interest
Oscars 2024: Holocaust and Hope in The Zone of Interest

A father is turning off the lights in his home at the end of the day. He locks the doors, shuts the windows, switches off lights. At the end of a corridor, he finds his daughter. She’s been sleepwalking. 

“What are you doing?” he asks her softly. 

“I’m handing out sugar,” she says, looking away from him and at a door that’s shut. 

“Who to?” 

“I’m looking.” 

“Come,” he says to her gently, taking her hand.  

The scene shifts abruptly from the warm tones of the home to a scene outside that has been shot using the black and white of thermal imaging. A girl, different from the one we just saw, is hiding apples in what looks like a muddy trench. Is this what the little girl was dreaming? The sounds of squelching mud and the tension in the girl’s body language suggest this moment is real, rooted in the fear and dangers of being where you’re not supposed to be. The little girl that we see as a negative image is the polar opposite of the one we saw sleepwalking. She’s awake, in every possible way. By this time in The Zone of Interest, we know the setting is Auschwitz in the 1940s. The landscape we see is one of dense shadow, swollen with the absent presences of the imprisoned Jews who are forced to work as labourers here. Against that blackness, the girl and the apples glow whitely, literally the only light in the darkness.

Written by director Jonathan Glazer, the screenplay of The Zone of Interest is only nominally based on a novel by the same name by Martin Amis. Glazer takes from Amis the central idea underpinning his novel: Life continuing in its banal way against the horrific backdrop of the Holocaust. Instead of showing a fictionalised Rudolf Höss and his wife Hedwig as Amis does, Glazer meticulously imagines the historical figures into cinematic reality. For his screenplay, the starting point was a fact that he discovered while researching the Hösses for two years: Their garden shared a boundary wall with Auschwitz concentration camp. It is this proximity and what it brings out in the Hösses that is the focus of The Zone of Interest. Glazer uses the everyday to piece together a portrait of a couple who seem unremarkable and mundane, only to reveal how monstrous their normalcy is. (If there’s any justice in the world, then Johnnie Burns will win the Oscar for his brilliant sound design, which uses recordings from the present to create a soundscape that quietly evokes the horrors of living next to a concentration camp.) 

Perhaps Glazer’s most inspired narrative device is the little girl who hides food for Jewish prisoners and her sequences are all shot using thermal imaging. The black and white negative images are a sharp contrast to the colour palette used in the rest of the film, and the script adds layers — like fragments of a fairy tale, or hopeful music — to make her stand out and apart from the central narrative. The first time we’re shown the little girl, we also hear this line from a bedtime story: “Then a little white bird flew out to guide them out of the forest.” Later, she finds a piece of paper stuffed into a tin. It has music written on it. All this is drawn from reality. Glazer met a woman who as a child worked with the Polish resistance and would cycle to Auschwitz and hide apples for the Jews in the work camps. Glazer told The Guardian, “She lived in the house we shot in. It was her bike we used, and the dress the actor wears was her dress.”

As it turns out, rather than a novel, what Glazer has adapted to cinema for his unforgettable Holocaust film is historical reality.

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