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The Zone of Interest review: We will be discussing Jonathan Glazer’s Auschwitz film for decades

Glazer’s formally breathtaking film is unlikely to be bettered this year

The Zone of Interest
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Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cert: 12A
Starring: Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller, Medusa Knopf, Daniel Holzberg, Sascha Maaz, Max Beck, Wolfgang Lampl, Ralph Herforth, Freya Kreutzkam
Running Time: 1 hr 45 mins

Few aphorisms have been more misinterpreted than Theodor Adorno’s “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. Still, it would not be insane to treat Jonathan Glazer’s formally breathtaking new film, The Zone of Interest – unlikely to be bettered this year – as an effort to honour a literal reading of that phrase. Setting out to make his study of Auschwitz’s administrators seem, in his own words, “unauthored”, he has ended up deep in a paradox.

True, the film-makers kept themselves at a singular distance. Christian Friedel, who plays Rudolf Höss, commandant of the camp, and Sandra Hüller, as his wife, move through a re-creation of the family’s home while up to 10 mounted cameras record their actions, line deliveries and occasional improvisations. There are almost no close-ups. The characters seem coldly closed off. If this is cinematic poetry then it is poetry of the starkest measure.

Yet so original is the approach that it positively yells of authorship. That has been Glazer’s way. Each of his previous features – Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin – bears the signs of intense creative focus. That is apparent again in the opening frames as, in unnerving perversion of the traditional overture, Mica Levi’s magnificently abrasive score blasts over a blank screen for a minute or two.

We are then dumped into the disconcertingly ordinary world of Rudolf and Hedwig Höss. They splash around the swimming pool with their children. They endure unremarkable domestic disputes. Hedwig’s uneasy mother comes to stay. “This is the life we’ve always dreamed of,” she moans when relocation is suggested. A site adjacent to the killing sector is their dream home.


It requires some knowledge of what went on in Auschwitz to discern the appalling ironies. (It is surely not asking too much to expect that.) We never see the victims. We encounter no atrocities directly. The only image from within the camp is a brief monochrome headshot of Höss that allows no confirmation of the horrors within his vision. How striking that a contender for 2024’s most disturbing film has a mere 12A certificate.

What we do get, however, thanks to a brilliant sound design from Johnnie Burn, is a near-ambient aural reminder of the historical truth. Constant gunshots. Dogs barking. Distant screams. To emphasise the terrible matter-of-factness, cuts come quickly after the more sinister sounds, leaving no time for contemplation.

It hardly needs to be said that Glazer’s film, based extremely loosely on a novel by the late Martin Amis, travels along no redemptive arc. The accumulation of mundane detail does, however, press home the way the most ordinary humans can rationalise their association with continuing cruelty. Hedwig tries on a fur coat that seems to have belonged to one of those about to be murdered. A child sits at a window before the glow from nearby furnaces. Glazer has argued that he will allow us to “maybe see ourselves in them”. A terrible thought. If it happened before, it could happen again.

So hard and chillingly perfect is the aesthetic – Friedel and Hüller adding another carapace with their unflinching performances – that one bristles a little when it is occasionally broken. What looks like thermal imagining follows one small act of bravery and compassion. A quasi-documentary coda could come from an entirely different film. But on second watch those segments set the surrounding in even more striking bas-relief.

Few reviews, since the film’s triumphant debut at Cannes, have managed to avoid mention of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”. Fair enough. It is all there. The ambitions of a bourgeois couple played out to the circumjacent annihilation of millions. Petty concerns distracting from gathering enormities. But the closing blasts from Levi also have the quality of satanic opera. We will be discussing this film for decades.

The Zone of Interest opens in cinemas on Friday, February 2nd

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist