Monday 29 January 2024

Negative space: "The Zone of Interest"

Right from its opening montage of an eye being manufactured, the writer-director Jonathan Glazer's last feature, 2013's
Under the Skin, was primarily engaged with the act of seeing. His latest, The Zone of Interest, is notable for what you don't see - but which you sense or imagine regardless. Glazer has set about Martin Amis's 2014 novel in much the same way he previously adapted Michel Faber, extracting a central idea, disregarding much else, and using that saved time and energy to find the images and sounds that best do that idea justice. The new film opens on a period idyll of sorts - a Teutonically blonde family sunbathing on a riverbank, the very picture of liberty and leisure - before following its subjects back to their well-furnished, amply staffed abode, so papa (Christian Friedel) can set off for work on horseback. A reverse angle, confronting us with a watchtower in the near-distance, fills in some critical context. This is the Höss family as they were in 1943, and work was Auschwitz, where dad served as the camp commandant; the family's home and flourishing gardens back directly onto the walls of the camp itself. We never see over those walls - the film is rated 12A for a reason - but Zone effectively fictionalises key points made by Claude Lanzmann and Marcel Ophuls in their landmark Holocaust documentaries Shoah and The Sorrow and the Pity: how close the worst atrocities of World War Two came - and how close they necessarily had to be - to ordinary lived reality; how that proximity led certain members of the human race, people who in some respects were not unlike you and I, to turn a blind eye to what was going on in the world beyond their garden gate.

Glazer, of course, wants us to notice what his characters don't, because if we didn't - if we just walked in off the street with no idea of the context the film was operating within - we'd walk out somewhat baffled by this austere drama about an odd, fussy German family to whom nothing major really happens. The bigger story here, accordingly, is told through sound. I spent Zone's first few minutes wondering whether the screening-room Dolby had packed up; the sound of at least the first reel has been recorded and rendered as though in a bubble, not unlike what you hear after getting water in your inner ear while swimming. Gradually, we tune in to what the characters have long tuned out. Listen closely enough - really tilt your head - and you should be able to discern shouts (instructions to halt? cries for help?), gunshots, barking dogs, screams. More prominent and unnerving of all - a sound that induces a tensing physical effect - is a low ambient rumble not unlike a hotel air conditioner unit, the kind of sonic prompt that reminds you of being kept awake at night. Whatever sound designer Johnnie Burn and his team wrangled into the mix here, it's an inspired choice, because it goes to the question that sits like a thorn at the heart of Glazer's film: how did any of these people sleep? Behind the shutters of the Höss retreat, the action is scarcely more reassuring. A birthday party is juxtaposed with the visit of flunkies arming Herr Kommandant with more efficient means of gassing several hundred Jews at a time. As night falls, the Höss boys play with tin soldiers while dad takes time out on the back lawn, the glowing tip of his cigarette rhyming with the fire in the incinerator's smokestack. At this point, it was all no more than a nasty habit.

The debate in critical circles - and, unlike many of its awards-season rivals, the film is certainly potent enough to have prompted serious debate, as opposed to the usual Twitter factionalism - is whether The Zone of Interest amounts to more than a very clever exercise in not showing, a single tactic (keeping the pits of the Holocaust firmly at arm's length) stretched arguably thin over two hours. I can only report that I found more variation and development than I was possibly expecting going in. (Certainly more than there was to behold in the flatly weird, pseudo-provocative child's play of Poor Things, for one.) Much of it hinges on what the film itself borders on: obscenity, for one thing, or at least a nod or two towards the comedy of warped priorities present in Amis's source. Frau Höss (Sandra Hüller) fusses over her lilac bushes while half of Kraków burns; her visiting mother (Imogen Kogge) tuts at being outbid for a pair of curtains belonging to a Jewish client who's been sent to the camps. I type this quietly, and with all due historical reverence, but The Zone of Interest is often a confoundingly funny film - confounding in just how far it goes beyond that yellowing critical standby "mordantly comic". How else to respond to the revelation that Casa Höss came complete with its own guestbook for passing functionaries? (Sample comment: "Thank you for your National Socialist hospitality.") 

That we're watching something far more rounded - and far more complex - than a mere stylistic exercise is surely apparent from the outbreak of domestic farce around the film's midpoint. Here especially, I think, the images and sounds recede a little, the better to highlight Glazer's exemplary work with his actors, asked to return to the realms of the credible (and credibly human) figures who might from a distance resemble no more than monsters. The set-up for this farce has its basis in historical fact: that in 1943, as part of the great Nazi merry-go-round of implausible deniability, Rudolf Höss was on the verge of being transferred out of Auschwitz, and the life of luxury to which his family had become accustomed. The gag is a pretty solid one: that even this man of fearsome, life-and-death power was finally an untermensch of sorts, deemed replaceable by the most horrible of bosses, perpetually nagged at by his other half. An image-hoarding Brit of a certain age, Glazer has to have been aware of this notorious one-episode wonder; I would swear it's lurking in the film's DNA. Either way, in a performance that far surpasses her walking question mark in Anatomy of a Fall, Hüller commits decisively to making Hedwig Höss - on this evidence, one of the 500 worst people ever to have set foot on the planet - a comically hateful figure; she does this first and foremost through a distinctive walk, a rolling complacency in the hips and rear that immediately conveys the presence (and privilege) of someone who's had it far too good for far too long at the expense of those around her.

Yet much as the house abuts the camp, this sly knockabout sits side-by-side with multiple unsettling disruptions of film form, Glazer's way of ensuring we never get that comfortable: thermocam footage redolent of an infernal Hansel and Gretel; a slow push-in on a flower until the redness of its petals fills the frame to the point of abstraction; subtitled resistance poetry, pronounced in its entirety. I detected a marked lessening of intensity in the film's second hour, as we leave Auschwitz behind to follow Höss's passage into Nazi high command, and witness the apparatus being expanded and greased in greater detail. (Suddenly, we seem too far away from palpable evil and too close to the banally bureaucratic, although one overhead shot of the commandants crammed in around the boardroom table cannot fail to poke you into further recognition of the scale of this operation.) A final drift into documentary of a sort - a peep through space and time into the gas chambers as they are today - indicates Glazer is in debate with himself about how best to conclude this story-without-an-ending, as you might say he (and, by extension, we all) ought to be. The whole is more variable than Under the Skin, which felt of a piece and more powerful and profound for that, but at its very best, which is often enough, Zone provides an astonishing demonstration of an aging medium's apparently still extant ability to compel, provoke and shock us anew. Stay seated through the closing credits, not for anything so trite as a sting, but to allow your chilled blood to recirculate as it should.

The Zone of Interest opens in selected cinemas from Friday.