Absence of a reckoning

Patrick Mulcahy on The Zone of Interest

Director Philip Kaufman was given one piece of advice from author Milan Kundera to adapt his novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” for the screen – “eliminate”. Adapting Martin Amis’ 2014 novel, “The Zone of Interest” into a feature film, writer-director Jonathan Glazer appears to have given himself the same licence. Amis’ novel reads like a workplace comedy, albeit one set in a Nazi concentration camp. Glazer’s film eliminates the novel’s motor, the lust of a senior officer for the wife of the camp’s “boozy” commander, and instead focuses on the commander and his wife. In so doing, Glazer retains the essence of Amis’ novel, that in the face of human atrocity brave men and women are in short supply and instead concern themselves in small matters, but ditches Amis’ cliché that his morally reprehensible protagonist, Angelus Thomsen, should be allowed his moment of grace.

Amis, who died in May 2023, was a caricaturist with a turn of phrase who concerned himself with the moral equivalence of the filthy rich and the stinking poor, both of whom operated with inherited stealth. His characters were, in the main, banal and ridiculous, generally unpleasant but simultaneously mocked and revered by Amis himself. Reading his novels – and I stopped doing so for almost two decades after “Yellow Dog” in 2003 – you feel Amis was attracted by the Nirvana of blissful ignorance. Glazer responds to that theme, taking viewers into the zone of broken connections.

Glazer’s film is simultaneously austere and banal. It vibrates with foreboding. It opens with a swell of music (courtesy of Mica Levi) that accompanies a black screen, held for longer than one might reasonably expect. Withholding our view of violence is a familiar trope from horror films – a viewer’s imagination almost always exceeds what can be shown. Glazer goes further. He shows us an idyll that exists in parallel with the horror, possibly because of it. A family lazes by the edge of the river Sola and goes swimming. Glazer approaches the scene like a landscape painter, inviting the audience to interpret what is being said rather than introduce the beginnings of a plot. Who are these people with their pale, healthy bodies? Why should we be interested in them?

Glazer shows us the family life of Commander Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their many children. In the majority of his scenes, Höss appears in a white suit buttoned to his neck and a basin haircut. He is not the typical black-suited, peaked cap Nazi commander saluting at will. Rather he suggests a colonial officer, administering a region in the face of disruptive indigenous people. We hear the screams. We sense the oppression.

Höss is instructed to take up a position in Oranienburg, Central Berlin, being replaced as camp commander. Hedwig wants to keep the house and begs her husband to plead their case. She is successful. In Höss’ absence, order breaks down. We see Hedwig smoking with a man in the family greenhouse, their bodies, leaning back, mirroring each other. There is the suggestion of attraction.

Cruelty is placed out of our view. We hear a conversation about a man who is caught stealing an apple. “Kill him and throw him in the ditch”, a soldier is told. There are scenes in Berlin, including an overhead shot of a meeting room filled with Nazi commanders discussing the need to process the population from Hungary. “Don’t worry”, one official is told, “you’ll get your workers.”

Throughout the film, the word “Jew” is never mentioned. Glazer doesn’t fetishize racial hatred, cognisant that such rhetoric is often what audiences take – and mimic – from such depictions. Glazer keeps Nazism and its trappings at arm’s length.

But what of the detail of Amis’ novel? Some of it survives, notably Höss being alone with a young woman for the purpose of sex. We see the gathering of jewellery from the effects (and teeth) of the dead. What is missing is the reckoning. Instead, the film leaps forward with a scene inside a museum where the mountains of dead people’s shoes are preserved behind glass.

As a film, The Zone of Interest is an open text. The audience makes and takes meaning from it. By removing the plot and incidents, Glazer avoids presenting a sympathetic Nazi, a criticism levelled at Amma Asante’s 2018 film, Where Hands Touch, about the romance between a young Nazi (George Mackay) and a mixed-race girl (Amandla Stenberg), which was effectively buried by its original distributor. Glazer’s film asks us to consider how we can live alongside such atrocities from which we do not actively dissent. It is a question that is particularly resonant post-October 7th, 2023, when bombs are dropped supposedly in the name of defeating a terrorist organization but displace, kill and impoverish the innocent.

The Zone of Interest is released in UK cinemas on 2nd February 2024

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