The Zone of Interest (2023)
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Starring Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller
By Tim Basaraba
I hadn’t used Uber or Lyft for over four years, but I recently had the opportunity to use one of these ride services while I was in LA at the end of last year. I wanted to see the latest film from Jonathan Glazer, and it just so happened that one of the six theaters in the country playing it was nearby. During my twenty-minute ride, I spoke with a fellow Ukrainian who had moved to the US six years ago. Despite his broken accent, we bonded over our shared love of food and his pride in his sons, who are now in their 30s. The subject of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia only came up at the end of our drive. All he could say was, “That is a Putin problem.” I thanked him and then asked, “What town are you from? I hope that when this is all over, you can go back to visit.” He replied, “My hometown was Mariupol.”
As I walked to the theater, his departing statement hit me like a ton of bricks. Mariupol is no longer a city; it has been reduced to rubble. The only reason I know this is from watching 20 Days in Mariupol (2023), a documentary that shook me to my core earlier this year. This man had no home to go back to, and the world has moved on. New conflicts and dramas dominate the news cycle, but Jonathan Glazer chose to revisit the Holocaust in his latest film. Why?
There have been hundreds of films about the Holocaust, including Schindler’s List (1993), The Pianist (2002), Life Is Beautiful (1997), Sophie’s Choice (1982), and the nearly 10-hour documentary Shoah (1985). With so many films already made, one might wonder what else is left to be said or shown about this dark time in history. However, Glazer’s latest film, The Zone of Interest, takes a unique approach to the subject matter. The movie portrays the life of a German high-ranking officer and his family who live just outside the walls of Auschwitz. Glazer’s approach is a cold, antiseptic look at the family’s domestic life, which is presented with a naturalism that belies their evil. The film is a chillingly anthropological study of the banality of evil, and it takes a new and effectively horrifying approach to the topic.
The score from Mica Levi, who collaborated with Glazer on the brilliant Under the Skin (2013), does more work than any of The Zone Of Interest’s stark visuals in regards to manipulating our emotions in regards to the Holocaust. The near-perfect visual framing of a life with perfect gardens, children playing, and a family dog made me nauseous. As the narrative slogged along, I felt ripped off. Where was the cinematic genius that made Under the Skin one of my favorite films of all time? I waited 10 years for Glazer’s follow-up, and this is what I get? A banal family drama surrounded by the screams and gunshots just yards away. If you’re looking for catharsis, you might want to watch Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards (2009) instead.
I had viewed Under the Skin at least a dozen times, but never in a theater. A re-release remedied that late last year, and watching it on the big screen was a unique and wonderful experience. The sights and sounds evoked a range of emotions in me, unlike any other film I’ve seen. The Zone of Interest didn’t have the same effect. Perhaps I’ll have to watch it again in 10 years on a rerelease to understand it better? Regardless, I hope Glazer releases a film sooner than that… one that deals with a subject matter other than the Holocaust.
If Schindler’s List (1993), The Pianist (2002), Life Is Beautiful (1997) and Sophie’s Choice (1982) are all A’s and A+’s then this latest Holocaust film is a B-.