English filmmaker Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast”; “Under the Skin”) was in Cannes this year for the first time with “The Zone of Interest,” a stunning new film about the Auschwitz concentration camp, more specifically about the family life of the camp’s top commander, a German officer named Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) who lives in the house next to the camp with his wife and their children and a recent newborn, their staff and a black dog. A river flows nearby, the house, with a large garden, a vegetable garden patch, the gazebo, it’s idyllic on a par with an SS officer’s expectations. But the place is a dead zone.
Any movie about the Holocaust, from “Night and fog” to the first act of Kornél Mundruczó’s “Evolution” and the many others that have been made in between, captures the imagination.
“Zone” takes place on two levels, front- and backstage, the lives of the family, their problems, the occasional arguments, the newborn who won’t fall asleep at night, that’s backstage. But everyone is privy to, and in total denial of, the killings going on next door.
Prisoners assigned to the house busy themselves around the grounds, they clean up the commander’s boots, they deliver foodstuffs to the kitchen. One narrative, inconsequential, is juxtaposed over another, urgent, savage and institutionalized. What goes on in the background is of a violence that transfixes because it is suggested by Glazer, the weight of hindsight, the collective memory of what took place during WWII bears down hard.
The beautiful house the commander’s family lives in abuts the camp’s walls, the family can see the barbed wires from the garden, from the house. Early in the movie, the wife, played by Sandra Hüller (“Toni Erdmann”) carries her newborn to a flower bed. The sun is shining. Everything is so perfect about this house and its land that it looks staged. She leans her baby into a rose so that it can have a smell. In the close distance, dark smoke billows upward. Talk about jarring, the contrast between this tender scene and what is taking place in the background. Harrowing.
Diegetic sound is experienced differently, noise from the garden, voices, they’re reduced as if they were rolling off felt or were partially absorbed by the dead zone. Over the barbed-wired wall, rising from the camp, a woman’s blood-curdling screams, they reverberate in the air in succession. Later, machine-gun fire and one long scream.
Mica Levi, who composed the score for “Under the skin” contributed her strangely-engrossing music here, too, though there’s just not much of it. In one sequence in inverted color a young woman sneaks around the camp at night. She places apples behind a group of shovels that prisoners on work detail will use the next day, a glimmer of humanity in a sadistic world.
Glazer set up ten cameras throughout the grounds to show different angles of the family’s comings and goings, the cast is being observed more than filmed, which evidently gives a voyeuristic intent to the viewer, adding to the unease.
“Sexy Beast,” “Under the skin” and “The zone of interest” there’s a sadistic undertow to Jonathan Glazer’s films
Glazer’s last film “Under the skin” premiered at the Venice Film Festival a decade ago.