The Peripheral of Evil: The Zone of Interest (2023) - Reviewed


Image courtesy of A24

Jonathan Glazer doesn't make movies very often, but they are artistically distinct and thoughtful when he does. For this outing, he adapted Martin Amis' 2014 novel The Zone of Interest, which follows Paul Doll, a fictionalized SS Commandant, and a love triangle involving his wife and another officer. Like his previous film, Under the Skin (2013), Glazer only takes the book's basic plot and does his own thing with the narrative, taking it in a completely different direction.

The film adaptation of the story follows the home life of Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), who was the real-life commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. He and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) live in an opulent farmhouse on the outskirts of the camp, only a few feet and a stone wall away from the horrors of the camp. The narrative focuses almost entirely on the day-to-day lives of the Höss estate and their live-in help. While the servants scurry around catering to the family's whims, the constant violence and suffering of the camp can be heard off-camera, but the residents of the house never acknowledge it.

"The banality of evil," a term coined by Hannah Arendt's book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, is a much-trodden concept in media about the holocaust, and rightly so because many people knew what was going on and intentionally ignored it. For example, in Shoah (1985), director Claude Lanzmann interviewed Franz Suchomel, a former SS officer stationed at Treblinka. "Treblinka was primitive. But a well-functioning assembly line of death.", Suchomel proudly stated. It is frightening how easily these people could compartmentalize their lives when their main job was to murder thousands of people every day.

Glazer is not concerned with three-act structure and formalism, and The Zone of Interest feels dreamlike and ambiguous, imparting a sense of dread for the entire runtime. It is difficult to care about the plight of the Höss household as they contend with transfers and the possibility of losing their home. Glazer wisely steers the focus away from the family in the last third of the film, instead exploring the relationship between the distance of time and atrocities. He juxtaposes the present-day Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum with the past, showing how the passage of time can blunt the impact of horror, not unlike the wall between the Höss estate and the camp. Rudolf Höss retches in the stairwell, suddenly overcome with the intense terror of the evil he has perpetrated, foreshadowing his eventual execution for his war crimes. One could criticize Glazer for not taking a different angle with the material, but keeping the discussion relevant for new generations is important.

--Michelle Kisner