At first glance, they seem like any family, enjoying a picnic by a lake, mom and dad splashing around with the five kids and paddling back to their well-appointed house for dad's birthday dinner. But "The Zone of Interest," a monumental cinematic achievement now in theaters, isn't about just folks. It's a horror show lived by people who willfully don't pay attention.
Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their children are fully indoctrinated Nazis. Höss was the real-life commandant of Auschwitz from 1940 to 1943 and his family lived just over the wall from the death camp, tuning out the barbed wire, the gunfire, the screams of Jewish prisoners and the smell of smoke belching from the crematorium.
Jonathan Glazer, the British writer and director of this profoundly unnerving film, shot on location in Poland, shows us nothing inside the camp, dramatizing instead what Hannah Arendt called the "banality of evil" to describe the deluded soldiers who blindly follow Hitler's orders.
Glazer makes us squirm, opening his film on a dark screen and holding it there until the brilliant, nerve-scraping score by Mica Levi kicks in and fills us with dread for what's to come.
"Nazism took hold like a fever and it's happening again," said the Jewish Glazer, who is painfully aware of the current rise of antisemitism in the world. Though loosely based on the 2014 novel by Martin Amis, the film goes its own way by using real names and keeping the Holocaust details at a remove, which only intensifies the bone-chilling horror that creeps so close.
"The Zone of Interest" is Glazer's fourth and best film so far, following the masterful "Under the Skin," "Birth" and "Sexy Beast." His artistry is apparent as the Höss family goes about its day. Disgust seeps in as the eldest son plays with a collection of teeth or Hedwig threatens a Jewish maid. Cross her and she'll "have my husband spread your ashes" across the fields.
Hüller, magnificent in "Anatomy of a Fall," plays Hedwig without empathy, but with a growing sense of shame. Watch how she shuts her bedroom door to try on a fur coat snatched from a Jewish prisoner or begs her husband to take her to a spa in Italy, away from the genocide she pretends not to see. The total commitment of her performance doesn't just stun, it stings.
Friedel also digs deep, finding the toxic core of Rudolf as he rises in the ranks by developing faster techniques for exterminating Jews. To this merchant of death, in league with Nazi bureaucrats, humanity is the first casualty. The commandant's focus never wavers, but his body is a different story as the camera catches him vomiting alone on a stairwell.
Glazer never lets up. There is no "good German," like the savior title character in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." The Jews in "The Zone of Interest" are denied the light of rescue, an Anne Frank to remind them that "people really are good at heart." Jews remain in the shadows as if the enormity of their fate couldn't be contained in one film. The late director Stanley Kubrick criticized Spielberg's take for softening the blow, saying, "the Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed -- 'Schindler's List' is about 600 who don't."
A valid point. Yet it's also valid to state that Glazer's moral grasp of the material is unflinching. Who says it can't happen here? It already has and might again if we refuse to be vigilant. Hard to watch, but impossible to forget, "The Zone of Interest" is a wake-up call issued from the bowels of hell. We ignore it at our peril.