We all do it. We put up walls around us to give us a sense of safety and security. For many of us those walls are figurative, not literal. In Jonathan Glazer’s WWII Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest, the walls created by SS Commander Rudolph Hoss (played with appropriate detachment by Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller, who between this film and Anatomy of a Fall, had one hell of a year) are literal, but the metaphorical is very much in play as well.
Rudolf is in charge of one of the most infamous concentration camps of the Nazi regime—Auschwitz. Next to the camp he makes his home. Through Hedwig’s design, that home is created to be as idyllic as possible. The home is sizable. The pool has a slide. The garden is carefully manicured, and the hell next to this home is obscured by high walls.
Still, those walls cannot completely hide that which happens on the other side—the screaming, the gun fire, the flames and burning ash of bodies being incinerated. But, if like Hedwig and Rudolf, you accept that Jews and those who might sympathize with their plight are not full human beings, you can somehow block out those pleas for mercy, that stench of death.
Rudolf, as wicked as he may be, takes a bureaucratic approach. This is merely his job: to see to the efficient termination of the Jewish population. As much as it may disturb, Hedwig is even more monstrous. Early on in the film, she is seen trying on a fur coat confiscated from a Jewish woman. She finds lipstick in the pocket. Does it look good on me she seems to ask herself? How does the coat fit? She requests that it be taken in. Hedwig is an opportunist and a plunderer, and the fact that her newfound garment and beauty product came through the death of another human is nothing but a normal fact of life during the Nazi years. There is no moral conscience to be found between either member of matrimony, only opportunism: Rudolf for career advancement, and Hedwig for land, housing, and belongings.
All of these moments are presented by director Jonathan Glazer in a manner so matter of fact as to be almost anti-cinematic (or pristinely cinematic depending on your view of showing vs. telling). Glazer has directed only four films, and each has become more austere and meditative than that which preceded it. Sexy Beast seems almost wildly stylistic when compared to the films that Glazer made next: Birth, Under the Skin, and now The Zone of Interest.
That’s not to say that Glazer has abandoned cinematic flourishes entirely. The beginning of The Zone of Interest starts with nearly two minutes of black screen. The use of the primary color red is certainly notable. And the sort of negative film stock that he employs to show a young girl hiding food for survivors to find gives the viewer a feeling that the events almost take place in another dimension.
Yet, most of The Zone of interest involves the mundane, that which might even be seen as boring, should one not consider the awful context of the often bland goings on of the Hoss family. The Hoss family has a dog. A greenhouse. A garden to tend to. Landscaping to consider. And in one scene that chills to the bone, a horse that Rudolf has a level of affection for that is so full of warmth that one can’t help but wonder how he reconciles his love of the equine with his daily work as an exterminator of Jews.
The Zone of Interest is not interested in the colorful nature of evil, but rather in its most bland, antiseptic form. There is a scene that would not be out of place in a family drama involving a domestic dispute. One where Rudolf must explain to Hedwig that he must accept a promotion that will require a great amount of travel. Hedwig’s concerns are among the typical troubles that any wife might have upon receiving this news: the missing of her partner, the care for their children, the change of their family dynamic. With just the change of a few words that specify Nazism, the back and forth as presented would appear to be a normal discussion of concerns between a married couple. Of course, the backdrop of the Holocaust next door, makes the viewer take in this moment through a different lens. The horror going on just outside of their walls is simply a normal part of their life. There is no concern for that doomed population, or even how their own brood of children might be impacted by it. After all, to the Hoss family (that makes use of Jewish servants), these aren’t real people anyway. They aren’t even human.
That means that, at worst, the sounds and sights of what is going on next door are no more of a concern to the Hoss family than an untimely phone call, or knock at the door. These walls that surround them keep them from seeing their evil up close. What goes on next to them is merely sound, vision, and scent. And each of those three items are muffled by those walls.
Rudolf may see these horrors conducted up close, but that is merely part of his job. For him, he may as well be overseeing the creation of automobiles coming off an assembly line. Glazer does offer the occasional counter: such as when Hedwig’s mother comes for a visit and finds the glow of bodies being incinerated more than she can take, and she disappears before the house awakens the next morning. One might argue that she discovers a conscience, but it’s more likely that she simply can’t stand the even tangential sight (there are no deaths shown on screen in The Zone of Interest) of that which she approves of–much like a person who believes in capital punishment, but would never attend an execution, let alone administer the means of death.
Glazer seldom shoots the scenes of this bracing film in close up. He keeps us at a voyeuristic distance. We are witnesses to his presentation. There is no excessive emoting in The Zone of Interest, only the matter-of-fact day to day management of the lives of the Hoss family. The walls hide their horror, but they do not extinguish it.
At the end of the film, we see Rudolf descend a long staircase. As he reaches a platform, he begins to retch, but produces nothing. I suppose there are any number of ways to interpret this moment. One might argue that the inhalation of human ash is a factor. Or, perhaps he just has indigestion. Glazer doesn’t tell you what to feel. For me, the moment represented that for all his wrongdoing, that Hoss, while feeling ill, had nothing inside. Because he was nothing. Nothing but the evil that men do in the name of country, zealotry, and duty. There was nothing to expel, because he was empty.
Perhaps counterintuitively while watching The Zone of Interest, I thought of a much different film about World War II: Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece of encroaching fascism on a wealthy Italian Jewish family, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. De Sica’s film is not quite as austere as Glazer’s (a hard bar to clear), and although it is told from the viewpoint of the victims of fascism as opposed to the perpetrators thereof, it does have one particular factor in common: Just like the Hoss family, the Finzi-Continis go about their daily lives surrounded by high walls that contain a beautiful manor and perfectly landscaped gardens. The stature of the Finzi-Continis and those majestic walls give them a false sense of security as it relates to their future. “We are important people” their property seems to state, “We are immune from consequences.” The Finzi-Continis carry out their lives in a similarly mundane and normal fashion, as if what goes on outside of their residence only applies to other people. It’s only at the end of the film, when they are led from their home by Mussolini’s soldiers, leaving their belongings to be sifted through as if contained within a free flea market, that it dawns on them that their walls are only human constructs, made of stone and erected by labor well beneath their station, and from the breaching of those walls they learn they are not immune from a world that has turned against them.
There may be no such scene of comeuppance for the Hoss family in The Zone of Interest, but that’s not necessary. History has told us how well the walls of the Hoss home protected them. Rudolf, the longest serving concentration camp commandant in Hitler’s military, was hung from the neck until dead in 1947 following a trial from the Polish National Tribunal for crimes against humanity.
Walls do not protect the guilty or the innocent. They are but an illusion that gives one the feeling of security, that seemingly lock away the outside world, until that which destroys those walls comes calling.
Perhaps Rudolf’s retching was but a precursor to his fate.