In 2015 Son of Saul, by Hungarian director László Nemes, came to Cannes, winning the director the Grand Jury Prize. This year sees Jonathan Glazer’s incredible German-language The Zone of Interest in competition. While the former takes place in a concentration camp and is seen from a prisoner’s perspective within the inner circles of that particular hell, The Zone of Interest shows concentration camp life from the other side of the barbed wire. But it is no less hellish for that and is almost as unbearable to watch as Nemes’s masterpiece.
The film opens with a dark screen, Mica Levi’s otherworldly and ominous music playing for a few minutes (Levi also wrote the score for Glazer’s Under the Skin). Before a single frame is shown, a sense of foreboding sets in. Yet the opening tableau depicts a Teutonic idyll: a family picnics by a slow-moving river, organza-clad girls picking flowers, their blond hair braided like their mother’s, while the male family members cavort and swim.
The drive home at dusk is like a Magritte painting, before the car pulls up outside a modernist house. The following day shows a garden replete with flowers and the rowboat the family have gifted their dad for his birthday. So far, so lovely. But dad is the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (the excellent Christian Friedel), and he is in full SS uniform, ready for work. His office is just outside the garden gate, and the garden – maintained by prisoners – has a perimeter wall separating it from the camp.
The family goes about its business as distant shouts, gunshots and cries are heard in the background (impressive work by sound designer Johnnie Burn). Nobody reacts to them: when Höss and his oldest son go out riding, angry orders are heard. Höss slows down and says to his boy: “Do you hear that? A bittern”. Nothing from the camp is allowed to penetrate their world.
At bedtime, Höss does what dads the world over do, locking doors and turning off the lights. Normality is everywhere and nowhere, for we also see blood being washed off his boots and a chimney belching and flaring in the near distance.
More chilling still than the commandant is his wife Hedwig (a phenomenal Sandra Hüller). “Rudi calls me the queen of Auschwitz!”, she tells her mother gleefully. She is blissfully happy with the life they have created for themselves and their five children (”Everything we want is on our doorstep”). She spends her days gossiping with friends, who cherry-pick the belongings of the inmates and whose stomach-churning conversations concern finding diamonds in the toothpaste.
The only family member with a shred of decency is Hedwig’s mother who, perhaps for the first time, understands the extent of the horror just beyond their door.
Glazer is not content with a simple telling of this story, loosely based on the novel by Martin Amis, who died this weekend. His film is visually stunning. Whenever the family is shown, the picture is crystal clear, fresh and new, yet at other moments – when Höss is reading fairy tales to his somnambulist daughter – the film turns to black and white, like a moving X-ray.
At first, we are unsure whether this is some kind of dream sequence. Instead, as Höss tells the story of Gretel shovelling the witch into the oven, it transpires that these beautiful scenes are only too real. In another scene, while distant screaming is heard, closeups of Hedwig’s beautiful flowers are shown, only for the screen to suddenly go scarlet. If the subject weren’t so ghastly, this would be a film to love.
Glazer also shows Auschwitz today, the cleaning ladies going about their work. Perhaps they are the descendants of the women who cleaned for Hedwig Höss. Since the end of that war, “the banality of evil” has been a term frequently used to describe the horrors of the Nazis and their camps. In his beautiful, terrible film, Glazer depicts it with intelligence and great craft.
The Zone of Interest screened at the 76th Cannes Film Festival