German philosopher Hannah Arendt famously said in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”, which she wrote after covering the trial of the Nazi war criminal, that what disturbed her the most was that rather than being the monster she’d expected, he was a perfectly normal bureaucrat. That is what The Zone of Interest is trying to say, as well. Very loosely based on Martin Amis’s novel of the same name, it’s the story of Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) the commandant of Auschwitz and his family who lived an idyllic life on the other side of the wall from the hellish concentration camp. It’s a clean life, totally divorced from what is happening just a stone’s throw away.
Rudolf and his perfectly Aryan wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann, Anatomy of a Fall) live in a large house with a beautiful garden where they have parties with the other SS officers and their families. They take outings to a lovely river with their kids. He reads them bedtime stories. And in the background, barely heard are the screams and barking dogs in the concentration camp, and a view of the smoke rising from the crematorium. But no one talks about it. There is only one mention in the film and only one person who seems to be affected. When Hedwig’s mother comes to visit, she wonders if the woman she used to clean for is in there, and she goes home unexpectedly, perhaps because she could not pretend like all those around her.
But it is this ability of all the people in the film to pretend that everything is normal that is the driving force of the film. We all know what happened. And mostly the film is devoid of big drama. The quotidian life of the Höss family with a few Nazi meetings thrown in is the totality of it. An hour and forty five minutes of people ignoring what is right in front of them. It’s banality with evil lurking below the surface. It’s hard to say I liked the film. The acting is good. It’s beautifully shot in muted colors. The sound design with pulsing noises adds to the slightly unbalanced feeling throughout. The subject is worth exploring. But it did not give me any sense of understanding how this could happen. How they blithely went about their happy lives as millions of human beings were being methodically erased. How they lived with themselves. And perhaps that is the point. There is no understanding.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: This film manages to be chilling, infuriating, and incredibly boring all at once. The message is ultimately a poignant reminder that we can’t (or shouldn’t) zone out or ignore atrocities going on in our backyard– literally and figuratively. That said, this film is sure to be a tough sell for anyone beyond the artiest of the arty crowd. -hb]
In limited release December 15th.