Jonathan Glazer’s new film dismantles simple cliches about the banality of evil.
The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer’s first film in 10 years, is ostensibly based on a book: Martin Amis’s stomach-churning 2014 novel of the same name. But understanding the movie’s formal and thematic genius requires looking at it differently: as a sidelong horror-film adaptation of Hannah Arendt’s 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem, one that goes way beyond that book’s well-worn idea of the “banality of evil.” That phrase, lifted from Eichmann’s subtitle, furnishes most people’s entire Arendt knowledge base: the idea that evil presents itself not as a devil with horns and a pitchfork, but in seemingly egoless, “mediocre” men like Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Final Solution, who carry out unspeakable atrocities.
That’s not wrong, but it’s much too simple, verging on cliche — ironic, given Arendt’s warnings. In her reporting on Eichmann’s trial, Arendt noted how he spoke only in “stock phrases and self-invented cliches,” the kinds of euphemisms that Arendt said indicated a refusal to think for oneself. In this, Eichmann was a true company man; the Third Reich was notorious for inventing language and speech codes that made following the rules seem inevitable. The Nazi Sprachregelung, or its particular bureaucratic vocabulary, was euphemistic in the extreme. Killing became “dispatching”; forced migration became “resettlement”; the mass murder of the Jews became Eichmann’s “final solution.” When you call what you’re doing to millions of your neighbors “special treatment,” you don’t have to think about what it really is. You might even start to enjoy the challenge of doing it more officially.
This Sprachregelung is all over The Zone of Interest, in part because its characters don’t talk about murder or genocide, but also because Glazer — whose previous film was the brilliantly unsettling Under the Skin — replicates the characters’ internal distance through the movie’s images and sounds. The result is unsettling in the extreme. It takes a few minutes of watching to realize what, precisely, you’re looking at, and the nauseating shock at that moment packs a stronger punch than any horror movie I’ve seen this year. Here is the sunny, flower-filled, orderly front garden, in front of a well-appointed and tidy home in which a large, cheerful family lives. But wait; just beyond the yard is a tall gray cement fence with barbed wire on top, and smokestacks visible in the distance.
On the other side of the garden wall is Auschwitz.
The home is occupied by the notorious extermination camp’s commandant, Rudolf Höss (a real man, played here by Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), their large brood of children, and a few servants, at least one of whom seems to be Jewish. The Zone of Interest keeps the Höss family in the foreground. We see them on a picnic, having family dinners, spending time playing in the garden, enjoying their greenhouse and their pool. Hedwig is a nurturing mother and hospitable housekeeper.
While they live out their lives in their happy house, we watch with horror. Smartly, Glazer gives us only the most minimal amount of character background; this is emphatically not a movie where there’s a “good Nazi” to root for. Instead, it shows how the whole Nazi system was designed to ensure that nobody could be good. We’re hearing the Hösses talk about life in the foreground. But there’s an ambient noise in The Zone of Interest, akin to the hum of a white noise machine — except in this case it’s omnipresent, the sound of furnaces in the distance, laced with occasional gunshots and howls. To hear what’s going on in the house, we have to tune them out a little. I hope we can’t.
The characters, however, have. Höss and his colleagues have been deeply formed by the regime in which they’ve made their careers, in which Nazi ideology is encoded in its language and systems. (They speak with awe and obedience of Himmler and of Hitler — and, of course, of Eichmann.) Höss has made a name for himself as an executor of efficient systems: “His particular strength is turning theory into practice,” a letter that a colleague writes about him explains. The practice of killing, that is.
It would be inexcusable and deadly wrong to say that The Zone of Interest is about people living in blissful ignorance about what’s going on just over the garden wall. They know exactly what’s happening; they’ve just, essentially, dissociated. Höss talks about gassing thousands of Jews as if it’s an interesting problem to be solved, but it’s his job. What’s more chilling is that his family knows. Hedwig — who proudly tells her mother she’s been nicknamed the “queen of Auschwitz” — admires a fur coat that arrives in a shipment brought in by a prisoner, trying on the lipstick she finds in the pocket. She warns the Jewish girl who works in the house that she could “have my husband spread your ashes” across the fields. She speaks with her visiting mother about whether a former neighbor of theirs, a Jewish woman her mother cleaned for, is “in there.” There’s a tinge of revenge, the feeling that if she is, she probably deserves it because she was probably plotting Bolshevik nonsense in days gone by.
Perhaps the most telling scene comes when two of the young sons are playing in the backyard. The older locks the younger in the greenhouse — and then makes noises of gassing at him. The only family member who seems unable to ignore the horror of what’s happening is the baby, who screams whenever the ovens light up.
The sound design in The Zone of Interest is so extraordinarily effective that it’s easy to miss what the film is doing on a visual level. The scenes of familial bliss take place in a beautiful garden or a comfortable home, but they’re shot with a severity that belies the setting; this is a world gone flat, a paean to a fascist dream of life properly lived, yet all surfaces and no depths. To live such a life would require a hollowing out, an ability to continually ignore one’s senses — those ovens smell awful, but Hedwig never indicates she can smell them at all — until they more or less cease functioning. The insistent bright ugliness gives way occasionally to something shocking (a few black-and-white segments reversed into photonegative, or a shot of a flower that fades to blood-red), all the better to remind us that none of this is beautiful, and we ought to be horrified.
Introducing her book The Life of the Mind by writing about her Eichmann observations again, Arendt could have been writing about the Hösses. She was “struck by the manifest shallowness” in Eichmann, which made it “impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives.” In fact, she wrote, while his deeds were monstrous, she saw that “the doer — at least the very effective one now on trial — was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.”
What is monstrous is the insistently abstracted language the Hösses and other Nazis use in order to avoid thought, especially contrasted with the wordless screams that Mica Levi has worked into the score. Höss is praised for his advances in “KL practice” (KL standing for Konzentrationslager, or concentration camp); we watch him deep in conversation about circular burn chambers that can more efficiently exterminate. “Burn, cool, unload, reload, continuously!” the designer tells him. We watch rooms full of Nazi commandants applaud news of the beginning of the “mass deportation” of Hungarian Jews, with 25 percent “retained for labor.” Nobody says exactly what they mean.
Arendt wrote that the Nazi Sprachregelung introduced a degree of separation between the users and reality, making the horrors of Hitler’s ideas, as Arendt put it, “somehow palatable.” Another way to say this is that humans are capable of great cruelties and monstrosities, but we’re also creatures of compassion and empathy. To see others as sub-human, worthy of prejudice or slavery or torture or extermination, we need to be coached through some mental gymnastics. We need words that disconnect us from reality, that put a layer of remove between us and them, between action and thought. Between our humanity and what we are capable of.
The effect of watching The Zone of Interest ought, I think, to make us feel a mounting horror — and then, from there, to make us think, an act Arendt was always writing about. In the Life of the Mind introduction, she argued that the antidote to the thoughtless cruelty of the autocratic systems around us might be thinking: “Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty of telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?”
Maybe, she wrote. “Could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evildoing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?” she asks. In other words, could learning to think, to avoid cliched thought and stock phrases, train us out of complacency? Could being shocked and horrified and made profoundly uncomfortable, left without easy language, perpetuate a moral good?
What Glazer does with The Zone of Interest is give the audience just a taste of that shock, and then force us into thinking. He never shows the atrocities outright — not to pique our curiosity but because we do not want to see them. To depict it would be, in its own way, an atrocity. Instead, he adds a visual and aural layer of abstraction in order to let us test ourselves, to see if we are, perhaps, the sort of people willing to be in their place now.
“The dividing line,” Arendt wrote, “between those who want to think, and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences.” All that seems clear right now, at this point in history, is this question is eternally worth facing.
The Zone of Interest premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and will be distributed later in 2024 by A24.