Philosopher Hannah Arendt studied Nazi Adolph Eichmann during his war crimes trial and coined the phrase “the banality of evil” as she felt his part in Hitler’s “Final Solution” was more about a bureaucrat advancing his career than any sense of innate sadism within Eichmann’s personality. Acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Glazer (SEXY BEAST, UNDER THE SKIN) explores similar themes in his new film THE ZONE OF INTEREST, adapted from the Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name. While Amis’ novel was largely fictional, Glazer’s work is more closely aligned to the true story of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoss, a man who lived in a dream house with his family right next door to the concentration camp. This film juxtaposes the everyday life of Hoss raising his family against the terrors emanating just steps from the family domicile. home. Glazer is providing us with his own study of the banality of evil, albeit one not nearly as matter-of-fact as Arendt’s take.
Such themes of what constitutes evil, where it comes from, and how it manifests itself in a nation, course through the film. Glazer suggests that evil may play out banally in the everyday comings and goings of the family in their home, but there was plenty of the more vicious kind simmering in Hoss and his wife. He seems to suggest that it was there all along, just waiting to be tapped by the Nazi movement. Truly, how could such a couple live within a stone’s throw of the camps and act so blithely? What kind of people could live like that?
Fortunately, Glazer spares us from witnessing any graphic horrors occurring within Auschwitz. The POV of his camera stays with the confines of the family home, and only occasionally ventures out, into Hoss’s office or to a Nazi gathering in Berlin later in the story. Still, hearing the sounds of the camps in the background of the scenes in the family home is more than enough to chill the blood. Adding to the chilliness is how Glazer has his cinematographer Lukasz Zac shoot everything middle-distanced. There are no close-ups to be found and every take is long which gives the film a seemingly naturalistic feel. At times, the film resembles a dispassionate documentary, as if watching these people from a distance can keep the horrors at bay. Or perhaps it’s meant to suggest we’re watching animals in a cage.
Christian Friedel plays Hoss and Sandra Hüller, his wife Hedwig, and both play their parts dispassionately too, rendering their characters all the more chilling. Still, at one point in the narrative, Hedwig loses her temper and we say the raging beast lurking just underneath her placcid surface. She flies off the handle at her Jewish maid over the merest of housekeeping mistakes, but the rage reveals her true character. Then when she threatens her maid with death at the hands of her husband’s guards, any belief in Eichmann-esque banality is wholly shattered. This is sociopathy, plain and simple.
The overall effect of watching the tedious day-to-day goings-on in the Hoss home while unspeakable horrors continue each day nearby creates a burgeoning sense of anxiety with each subsequent minute. Enhancing the horror even more is the spare but harrowing score by Mica Levi. She worked similar wonders with her moody, edgy music for the films UNDER THE SKIN and JACKIE.
It all makes for one disturbing cinematic experience, a historical drama that often feels like an arthouse film, but as it spools out, becomes more and more of a horror movie. And with the resurgence of fascism dominating so much of the discourse today and seemingly becoming part of the issues at hand in our nation’s 2024 election, THE ZONE OF INTEREST could not be a more timely or terrifying film.