In any film, the director and cinematographer compose the visual elements, the cast interprets the script and dialogue, and music and produced sounds come together to form a soundtrack—the three main components. The Zone of Interest has one of the best soundtracks I have ever heard. The sound is like the main character; it carries the sense and meaning of the story.
From the start, we know what the film is about when we see the Auschwitz concentration camp on the other side of the family home of the SS commandant, Rudolph Hoss. The billowing dark smoke coming out of the big chimneys confirms this. The film follows the everyday life of the commandant’s family: kids playing with toys inside or in the garden pools; Jewish prisoner maids who clean, prepare, and serve the meals; the husband and wife dressing for going out; trips to the river for fishing or boating; and the mother visiting. There is not much drama at all. The only real plot line is the wife’s anguish at the commandant having to be transferred, which would mean she would lose her idyllic garden she had built up over the past few years.
The plot could be about a manager and their family in a big company living in accommodations provided by the business. Indeed, this is reinforced in the way the Nazis are shown managing the camps with boardroom-type meetings to discuss new developments in technology or their master plan of extermination. What saves the wife from the transfer is the latest Nazi plan to transport 700,000 Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz and other camps. The boardroom scene with all the camp commanders brilliantly communicates the cold, industrial-scale management of the genocide. Those involved calmly toss numbers and logistics back and forth, covering the slaughter with neat agenda items.
I think the director wants us to reflect on the historical enormity of the genocide by showing its business style fascist ‘rationality’. How the people carrying it out can ‘other’ a whole people and create their zone of interest cut off from mass murder. A psychological adjustment is expressed in the banality of a comfortable family existence cut off from the horror just over the garden wall. Hannah Arendt talked about the banality of evil; here we see it filmed.
When we saw the movie yesterday, we could not get our usual back seats, and we were in the front row. It actually felt like we were inside the cloistered life of the house and garden. There is continual opening and shutting of doors, going in and out of rooms, and just the familiar observance of living in a house. You too had the illusion of being cut off from the evil over the wall. The scene at the beginning, where you are immersed in a glorious day out at a nearby river, is beautifully shot on a hot summer’s day. The feeling of a contented family enjoying nature is very powerful. Then suddenly somebody finds something in the river—it looks like a bone, but it is deliberately shown only fleetingly. Hoss immediately gets everyone out of the river and rushes back home to get immediate baths. His children would not know, but he was panicking about his family being contaminated by diseased prisoners’ bones.
In this scene, there is hardly any dialogue; in fact, the dialogue is pretty secondary to the visual and the soundtrack throughout this movie. The performance from Sandra Huller, who plays Rudolf Hoss’s wife, Hedwig, is totally different from her intense role in Anatomy of a Fall (another Oscar contender). She has to play this utterly unsympathetic, selfish character who, at one point, threatens the prisoner maid with scattering her ashes after she makes some mistake. The director keeps the characters at a distance from us; he restricts any audience empathy with them. We observe clinically their zone of interest. We see the commandant taking and giving orders, but no emotions are closely examined or expressed. We observe Hedwig’s emotional attachment to her garden and frustration at the possible transfer, but it is not articulated in detail; there is little talk between the couple on this. It is as though the director is deliberately being very careful not to humanise to any degree.
Throughout the movie, the reality of the concentration camp is communicated in a way quite different from what we saw in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. In that film, we saw repeated random executions by the commandant and lots of other brutality. Here we hardly see any of the prisoners, just the maids or the gardeners in Hedwig’s household. The soundtrack communicates the reality of the camp. On the other hand, we regularly hear the noise of the ovens and rifle/pistol shots. That soundtrack punctuates the movie; you cannot escape it, even if his family ignores it. At one point, we hear a short dialogue preceding the murder of a prisoner for some minor misdemeanour. Obviously, this original narrative works because most viewers know about the Shoah and the camps. I was not surprised to find out that the soundtrack has already won an award at the London Critics Circle Awards this week.
Original music composed by Ludwig Seide opens and closes the film, playing for several minutes at the start against a pattern and extending over a dark screen at the end. The music expresses the horror and momentousness of these events and is intended to provoke reflection among the viewers. This is not a Hollywood movie with a cliched narrative structure or a happy or sad-neat ending.
In fact, at the end, the director includes a few minutes of voiceless action showing cleaners today in the Auschwitz museum cleaning the gas chambers. The camera lingers on the displays of the thousands of shoes or belongings taken from the inmates before they were executed. We need to understand that this is not some escapist movie or voyeuristic violence, not a story in the conventional sense; this is history; this is what happened to 6 million Jews, gypsy, disabled, trade union, political, or other progressive opponents of the fascist regime. We should never, ever forget.
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