By Edo Choi
The Zone of Interest
Dir. Jonathan Glazer, U.K./U.S./Poland, A24
â€śIn the midst of beings as a whole, an open place comes to presence. There is a clearing [Lichtung]. Thought from out of beings, it is more in Being than is the being. This open center is, therefore, not surrounded by beings. Rather, this illuminating center itself encircles all beingsâ€”like the nothing that we scarcely know.â€ť â€”Martin Heidegger, 1936
A ghastly musical overture over a black screen: a wailing Shepard tone forever descending into an abyss of spectral echoes. The title, the only opening text, doesnâ€™t fade so much as dissipate into the nothingness. Finally, familiar sounds of the natural world bleed into our awareness, the tenebrous strains diminish, and, with the filmâ€™s first, startling cut, we find ourselves in a clearing. Framed by trees and backed by a river shimmering in the late afternoon sun, a clump of idly reposed figures stir languidly in the grass at middle distance. Every aspect of what we see in this pristine, static first shot is disconcertingly ordinary, and yet already the film has established a mood that is extraordinary, troubling the conscience of our gaze. Where and when are we? Who are these seemingly innocuous people? And why does the camera observe them at such ethnographic remove? As the scene unfolds, we might search for signs, perhaps noticing the womenâ€™s period dresses and bathing wear, the menâ€™s military crew cuts, and the spoken German. The longer we look, however, the more this banal tableau takes on an obscene aspect and the more our looking acquires the taste of voyeurism.
In this commanding prelude, Jonathan Glazer ushers us inside the secluded arcadian reality of Rudolf HĂ¶ss (Christian Friedel) and his family, bringing us within the secure confines of the Interessengebiet, the titular interest zone, a 40-square kilometer area surrounding each of the various camps that once comprised what today many know more generally as Auschwitz. From autumn 1940 to summer 1944, with the exception of a six-month transfer, HĂ¶ss, the founding and longest serving commandant of the KL Auschwitz complex resided with his wife, Hedwig (Sandra HĂĽller), and their five children in a two-story stucco villa adjoining the original prison camp Auschwitz 1. Over that period, this seemingly mild-mannered administrator, whom one Nuremberg lawyer described as a â€śgrocery clerk,â€ť presided over the mass murder of nearly a million people, the vast majority of them Jews. The Zone of Interest drops in on the HĂ¶ss family around the spring or summer of 1943, the point at which Auschwitz took over the extermination process, but Glazerâ€™s film shows rather a household at the peak of its domestic bliss, thrumming to its own lively and well-oiled diurnal rhythm.
The real HĂ¶ss was born and spent his early childhood in Baden-Baden on the edge of the Black Forest, where the philosopher Martin Heidegger kept the hut in which he composed many of his foundational texts, and where the Jewish poet Paul Celan would later confront the aging thinker about his Nazi past. In the memoir he composed while on trial before the Polish Supreme National Tribunal, HĂ¶ss fondly remembers those woods, which nurtured his imagination, as they did Heideggerâ€™s, and seeded the passion for agrarianism that later led him to enroll in the back-to-the-land Artaman League in 1928. In the league, he would meet his future wife, Hedwig Hensel, and become close with a schoolteacher named Heinrich Himmler. Through the likes of Himmler, the Artamanâ€™s â€śblood and soilâ€ť doctrine would become a key tenet of Nazi ideology, synthesizing the VĂ¶lkisch notions of race and settlement that would form the theoretical backbone of the Generalplan Ost, the blueprint for the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Eastern Europe as a precursor to German colonization.
Lichtung, the German word for a clearing in the forest, is an important metaphorical term in Heideggerâ€™s writings, which are rife with such bucolic imagery, inspired by his meditative treks through the Black Forest. The term also contains a double meaning. For the Licht in Lichtung means light, implying not merely an open space but an illuminated one. The fact that the opening scene of Glazerâ€™s film, set in a glade bathed in such licht, brims with likely unintentional Heideggerian suggestion only makes the echoes more remarkable. Put in the philosopherâ€™s terms, The Zone of Interest is a film formally premised on the structural interdependency of disclosure and concealment, where that which is revealed comes to presence only by virtue of that which is hidden, where being is founded upon non-being.
On one level, itâ€™s unsurprising that Glazerâ€™s film about Nazis would evoke Heidegger, one of the visionary thinkers of the 20th century. For Glazer himself is one of the few narrative filmmakers still audacious enough to aspire to the visionary, not as a superlative quality but as an aesthetic register. At his best, Glazer can estrange our perception of things, make reality seem remote, alien, uncannily unfamiliar. Like Terrence Malick, another filmmaker connected to Heidegger, he can re-enchant the visible manifestations of our postmodern world, albeit to much more ominous effect. Both Birth (2004) and Under the Skin (2013) contain images that inspire genuine, if uneasy, wonder. Take the formerâ€™s oneiric, slow-motion sequence of Anne Heche burying an intended wedding gift in the soil of Central Park, a scene animated by the irrational and imbued, courtesy of the late great Harris Savides, with the magical aura of a Grimmâ€™s fairy tale. Picture the extraterrestrialâ€™s crepuscular vision of the Scottish Highlands in the latter, its windswept coastal escarpments, serpentine mountain roads, brumous hills, and primeval forests, landscapes that evoke Caspar David Friedrichâ€™s sublime, albeit one utterly drained of the Romantic painterâ€™s spiritual yearning.
Glazerâ€™s capacity to conjure such awe-inspiring images has not left him with The Zone of Interest. Here, the clandestine, nocturnal rounds of a local Polish girl, who hides fruit for concentration camp inmates to find, are filmed with a thermal camera to hypnagogic effect. Later, a horrified old woman stares out of a window bathed in the satanic red glow of a crematoriumâ€™s chimney. These are moments of stark, haunting beauty next door to Murnauâ€™s Nosferatu and Dreyerâ€™s Day of Wrath. What makes this film Glazerâ€™s most successful work to date, however, is the radical extent to which he has allowed his subject to guide the shape of his film, providing such moments with a clarity and unity of purpose previous efforts have lacked. Perhaps the principal reason the mesmerizing Birth never coalesces into a satisfying romantic fable is that the mood of morbid longing that infuses its most memorable passages issues from the filmâ€™s austerely beautiful construction rather than its dramatic core, which remains coyly nebulous. Similarly, in Under the Skin, Glazerâ€™s overwrought brand of minimalism ultimately flattens whatâ€™s left of Michel Faberâ€™s original story for the sake of an elliptical odyssey that no longer contains enough well-defined action to nourish its lofty themes.
The historical basis of The Zone of Interestâ€”which sheds the fictional characters and storyline as well as the corrosively mordant tone of the Martin Amis novel from which it borrows its titleâ€”leaves Glazer little room for such a disparity of development between form and content. The result is not only the directorâ€™s soundest drama, if a still minimalist one, but also the film that most thoroughly sustains the visionary effect he has always sought. This rigorously conceived, unflinchingly executed study of perpetrators of genocide lingers in the mindâ€™s eye and ear, with the hallucinatory intensity of a palinopsia, a burnt-in afterimage, defamiliarizing the Nazi Holocaust and returning it to us as an event that unfolds in the unnervingly present tense. Obeying an ethic of factual authenticity that, for the first time, grounds his often too insistently spare approach, Glazer advances a picture of moral rot that is, up to a very fine point, horribly evocative. Itâ€™s telling that this tipping point reveals itself only after one has been released from the filmâ€™s spell with the space and distance of reflection.
Still, while we inhabit its designated perimeter, The Zone of Interest also manages to enrich and complicate many of the themes, gestures, and motifs found across Glazerâ€™s work. Take the self-reflexive closing sequence of Under the Skin. A pinhole of light appears at the bullâ€™s eye of a black screen. A jump cut transforms it into a blinding head light. A black sphere drifts slowly toward the cavity of another, larger sphere amid a void. Merged, the two bodies reveal themselves to form nothing so unfathomable as a planetary body or an alien spacecraft, but a human eye. This image suggests an identity, and therefore a discomfiting complicity, between the filmâ€™s alien succubus (played by Scarlett Johansson) and the humans on which she preys, between the other and the I (or we), between character and viewer. It suggests that those who look may also be those seen.
If, as Glazer once said of Under the Skin, his movies are foremost â€śabout looking,â€ť then they are also films where the camera that looks implies the presence of an agent who does this looking. The agent who looks, whose perspective in which we are placed, is or is always taken as a threat, a hostile foreign presence. It comes as somehow not itself, disguised, in the form of an old colleague (Sexy Beast), an ordinary boy (Birth), a human like you or me (Under the Skin), what Glazer has referred to, in the case of the third film, as â€śan interloper.â€ť Much in the manner of Goebbelsâ€™s caricature of the Jew, the interloper threatens to subvert the surveilled society, whether that society is the social circle of a retired gangster at his tacky Andalusian paradise, upper-crust New Yorkers ensconced in their crypt-like apartment buildings, the quotidian population of contemporary Scotland, or cosseted members of the SS elite at Auschwitz. Glazerâ€™s first three films are studies of intrusion and encounter, depicting the moments of first contact between his interlopers and the hierarchically regimented societies they infiltrate. These encounters typically do not end well for the interloper. The worlds we make for ourselves, Glazer seems to suggest, only survive by rejecting that which is other to them. Indeed, the sacrificing of a life, lives, or ways of life to allow the flourishing of other lives emerges as the recurring theme of Glazerâ€™s cinema. In Sexy Beast, ex-thief Gal and his friends murder their feral former associate Don Logan to preserve their Spanish retirement haven. In Birth, a man dies as if to allow a child to be born. In Under the Skin, the alien interloper is burnt alive by a random, everyday brute. Significantly, The Zone of Interest constitutes the first time this figure is neither embodied nor seen, only imagined by the society that fears it. Rather than revolving around the introduction of the foreign agent and the violent communal suppression that follows, Glazerâ€™s latest film rests on the structuring absence of that agent, whose systematic repression has long since been underway.
â€śThe Jews are over the wall,â€ť Hedwig HĂ¶ss tells her visiting mother as they enter her villaâ€™s spacious garden. The casualness of her tone belies the neurotic lengths to which she and her husband go to preserve their familyâ€™s sense of security throughout the film. In an early sequence, we watch Rudolf methodically walk from room to room, turning out the lights and latching or locking the doors before he heads to bed. His movements are less observed than traced by Glazer, who shot much of the film using a battery of synchronized hidden cameras strategically placed throughout the HĂ¶ss house and its grounds. The implicit effect of this Big Brotherâ€“style coverage does more than place us at a clinical remove from the action. While the viewerâ€™s gaze is always carefully confined, the sense of a pervasive surveillance apparatus suggests that the filmmakers could show us anything that they so chose, especially the orgy of horrors displaced to the soundtrack. This knowledge shadows what we do witness like a superstition, one that in turn mirrors the HĂ¶ss familyâ€™s own paranoid and walled-off states of mind.
Glazer has described this ambient method as â€śforensic,â€ť and figuratively this is true enough, but the filmâ€™s aesthetics finally operate in the same way that all fiction does, theatrically and rhetorically. In Shoah, the footage Lanzmann captures of the sites of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, and CheĹ‚mno in their then-present condition functions literally, if certainly not only, as forensic. Each chosen position, angle, movement, and zoom is carefully matched to a witnessâ€™s description of incidents that transpired in the same place decades earlier. These images, even at their most poetic, are photographic evidence. They establish a factual record. By contrast, Glazerâ€™s use of the term describes the moral relationship he sets up between the viewer and a fictionalized space. Even his filmâ€™s final, documentary sequence, where we are suddenly transported to Auschwitz in its current state of preservation, serves a rhetorical purpose: to insist on the fact that the past lives on in the present.
Visually, so complete is Glazerâ€™s command of every square inch of the filmâ€™s pre-established frames, so considered are the proportions, perspective, lensing, arrangement, and blocking that several compositions evoke nothing so much as a gruesome caricature of Jacques Tatiâ€™s comedy of suburban solutionism Mon oncle (1958). Sonically, the filmâ€™s soundscape of distant gunshots, muffled beatings, drownings, and sundry other corporal abuses, as well as of arriving railway transports, overhead passing planes, the churning crematorium, and other indefinably awful sounds, obeys a logic of shock, disturbance, revulsion. The palette of effects runs the gamut from the oppressively industrial to the queasily visceral, from the grotesquely inchoate to the upsettingly specific. The factual foundation of The Zone of Interest remains important in so far as it tethers the filmâ€™s form to an historical atrocity, but the film is finally a choreographed simulation, which makes it frustratingly insular even as it feels powerfully suggestive. It activates the viewerâ€™s awareness while confining our imagination, stoking our desire to picture what we hear rather than fostering our curiosity to seek what truths lie beyond picturing.