TIFF REVIEW – ‘The Zone of Interest’ is unshakably chilling and meticulously crafted

Loosely adapted from Martin Amis’s novel of the same name, explores the banality of evil with a chilling and restrained approach. Set against the backdrop of Auschwitz, The Zone of Interest examines the lives of Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the commandant of the concentration camp, and his family, who live just outside its walls. Jonathan Glazer’s direction, combined with stellar performances and an unsettlingly immersive atmosphere, crafts a poignant and thought-provoking narrative that lingers long after the credits roll in this unshakably chilling and meticulously crafted masterpiece.

From the opening scene, Glazer sets a tone that is both eerily calm and deeply disturbing. The film’s meticulous attention to detail is evident in the serene, almost idyllic portrayal of the Höss family’s domestic life. This juxtaposition of normalcy against the horror of the Holocaust is where The Zone of Interest finds its most profound commentary. It doesn’t rely on graphic depictions of violence to convey the atrocities but instead focuses on the psychological and moral dissonance of the characters who normalize and compartmentalize evil as part of their daily existence.

Friedel’s portrayal of Höss is nothing short of extraordinary. He embodies a man who is chillingly detached from the horrors he oversees, projecting an unsettling calm that serves as a powerful contrast to the unimaginable suffering occurring mere meters away. Friedel’s performance is nuanced, capturing the complexity of a character who, on the surface, appears as an ordinary family man but harbours an allegiance to a monstrous ideology. His interactions with his family are portrayed with a veneer of normalcy that only heightens the film’s disturbing impact.

Sandra Hüller delivers a standout performance as Hedwig Höss, Rudolf’s wife. Her character is depicted with a chilling pragmatism, fully aware of her surroundings yet resolute in maintaining her comfortable lifestyle. Hüller’s portrayal brings forth the moral ambiguity and complicity of those who enable and benefit from systemic evil. The subtlety of her performance is a testament to her skill, as she conveys a deep internal conflict through mere glances and body language, making Hedwig one of the most compelling characters in the film.

Glazer’s directorial choices are masterful, creating an atmosphere that is both immersive and oppressive. The decision to keep the horrors of Auschwitz mostly off-screen, allowing them to permeate through sound and implication, proves to be a powerful storytelling technique. The ambient sounds of the camp, the distant cries, and the industrial hums serve as a constant reminder of the proximity of death and suffering, creating an omnipresent sense of dread that permeates the viewer’s consciousness.

The cinematography by Łukasz Żal is visually stunning, utilizing a restrained colour palette that mirrors the emotional coldness of the characters. The camera often lingers on mundane details, emphasizing the ordinary aspects of the Höss family’s life, which starkly contrasts with the unimaginable suffering happening just out of sight. Żal’s use of framing and composition enhances the film’s thematic depth, often placing characters in positions that highlight their isolation and moral disconnection.

Mica Levi’s score is another highlight, contributing significantly to the film’s haunting atmosphere. The music is minimalist, often unsettling, and perfectly complements the film’s tone. Levi’s compositions add an additional layer of unease, reinforcing the disquieting normalcy of the characters’ lives while subtly hinting at the horrors lurking beneath the surface.

What sets The Zone of Interest apart is its unwavering commitment to exploring the psychological and moral landscape of its characters without resorting to overt dramatization. The film’s power lies in its ability to evoke a profound emotional response through subtlety and restraint. It challenges the audience to confront the uncomfortable truth about the banality of evil and the capacity for ordinary people to partake in extraordinary acts of cruelty through willful ignorance and moral disengagement.

The thematic depth of The Zone of Interest extends beyond its historical context, offering a timeless examination of human nature and complicity. Glazer’s film serves as a stark reminder of the importance of vigilance and the dangers of complacency in the face of systemic injustice. It’s a film that resonates on multiple levels, provoking introspection and a reevaluation of one’s own moral boundaries.

Through exceptional performances, meticulous direction, and a hauntingly immersive atmosphere, The Zone of Interest delivers a profound exploration of the banality of evil. It’s a film that demands attention and reflection, leaving an indelible mark on its audience. It’s not just a film; it’s an experience that challenges and haunts, making it one of the most significant cinematic achievements of recent years. Watch out, awards season. Glazer is coming.

Distributor: A24
Cast: Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller, Medusa Knopf, Daniel Holzberg, Sascha Maaz, Max Beck
Director:  Jonathan Glazer
Producers: James Wilson, Ewa Puszczyńska
Screenplay:  Jonathan Glazer
Cinematography: Łukasz Żal
Production Design: Chris Oddy
Costume Design: Małgorzata Karpiuk
Music: Mica Levi
Editor: Paul Watts
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: 25th January 2024 (Australia), 15th December 2023 (US)

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