Monday, February 26, 2024

2024 Academy Award Best Picture Nominee - The Zone of Interest


Cathy's Review:  The Zone of Interest isn't a typical Holocaust movie. It doesn't show even a single explicit horror.  There are no mass graves, no scenes of people being herded into the gas chambers, no beatings, no rapes, no horrific human experiments, no walking skeletons with rotting teeth. In fact, it doesn't depict a single death.  It's a slow-burning movie that builds and builds, and because of that lack of overt horror, I didn't raise emotional barriers to it, and it got under my skin in a way that something obviously horrifying couldn't.

It reminds me a little of Ring Lardner's classic unreliable narrator story Haircut. What the town barber tells his new customer, and what he actually reveals are two very different things.  This movie isn't at all unreliable, however, when it portrays the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his wife Hedwig, as people who just want what everyone wants: a happy marriage, a nice home, and a good place to raise their children. Höss is a family man, who lovingly carries his sleeping daughters up to bed and reads them fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel (notably the scene where Gretel pushes the witch into the oven). 

And they create an idyllic oasis together in the countryside of Poland.  It's a beautiful area, with rivers to swim and boat in and open fields to ride horses, and they live in a villa with a wonderful walled yard with extensive gardens, massive greenhouses, and a pool for the children to play in. They even have servants with whom Hedwig generously shares some superfluous silk undergarments. 

The movie reveals so much more, through implication and oblique references. The viewer slowly realizes the servants receiving Hedwig's largesse aren't servants but slaves taken from the camp right next door.  And those superfluous luxury items? They were stolen from other victims.

The movie focuses on this idyllic life and only shows the horror indirectly - displaying the red glow of the ovens at night, the smoke pouring from the smokestacks, which can always be seen over the garden walls and through the windows, and the constant sounds of horror. Screams, gunshots, and sobbing. During the worst of it, a motorcycle revs its engines -- evidently, the commandant had a soldier ride his motorcycle up and down the road to drown out the worst of the sounds.

The business of the camp is handled matter-of-factly, with inventors showing Höss the plans for a ring crematorium that allows for the efficient cyclical load-heat-cool-unload process that will allow it to operate 24 hours per day, and the movie leaves the audience to realize the implications.  And this was just a regular day for a man just doing his job.

The look and feel of the movie was quite weird. It was all filmed with hidden fixed cameras (the actors didn't even know where they were), so there are no closeups, no zooms, and no panoramic vistas.  The voice track was deemphasized and quiet, allowing the sounds of the camp to have greater prominence, and those two things together made the viewer feel like a spy peeping at them from a distance, almost as if you are in the camp itself, watching the family live this idyllic life.  The movie kept me feeling weird and off-kilter because these were just regular people, and it's horrifying that it's possible to identify with them.  The phrase "the banality of evil" gets tossed around in articles about the movie, and, well ... yeah.  

The movie also depicted the erosion of the Höss children's souls at very young ages. One of the most horrifying scenes in the movie shows one of the younger sons playing with his toy soldiers, and in the background, you can hear his own father ordering the executions of some problematic prisoners. The boy, who looked to be about five years old, just plays on with learned willful ignorance.

The movie also gradually reveals just what monsters Rudolph and Hedwig were, until at the end you hate them, but also know that each of us has the potential to behave similarly.

There is only one genuinely good character in the movie, a young Polish girl who hides food for the prisoners in the dead of night. Interestingly, her scenes are filmed with a thermal camera, so she literally glows with warmth, giving her the look of an angel in the darkness. It is a stark contrast to the coldness of the Höss family.

I only have three criticisms.  First, the subtitles were problematic -- they were too low on the screen, so I constantly had to look down and then back up to see the whole picture, and they also should have used a color that showed up against the background better.  

The second, (and this isn't exactly a criticism) is that the audience must have at least a little understanding of what happened at Auschwitz to fully understand the implications.  For example, at the beginning of the film, Hedwig receives a valuable fur coat and carefully examines the lining, and someone who doesn't know about the Holocaust might not realize the coat is property stolen from a murder victim.  In the next scene she hands the coat to one of her slaves and asks that it be cleaned and the lining be repaired.  Does the viewer know that it was common for Jewish women trying to escape the Nazis, to hide jewelry and money in the linings or hems of their clothing? If you don't know that, you wouldn't see the implication - that she was coolly hunting for valuables, and she herself probably slit the lining to retrieve a desperate woman's treasure.

And third, the movie never explains the title. The assumption is that we see what we want to see and ignore the rest, which is certainly an important theme in the movie.  But the term actually refers to the area surrounding the camp - the Nazis removed all the locals in a large ring around the camps, to create a buffer zone to hide their activities. But that zone also provided empty space for the Höss family to create their happy little oasis within sight and hearing of what was arguably the worst instance of human atrocity of all time.

Chris's review: I go back and forth trying to decide if it was a horror or a drama. The Zone of Interest was a dramatic handling of a horrific subject. The central brilliant feature is that the focus of the film remains 'just around the corner' from the Holocaust by concentrating on the mundane life of the commandant of Auschwitz and his family while vigorously including horrors in every shot -- the women casually joking about spoils of the victims next door, (not very) distant gunshots are constant in the neighborhood of the camp, and of course plumes of smoke and human remains appear routinely. The audio was amazing and very supportive of the movie -- distinct, stylistic, evocative, unsettling, simultaneously subtle and obvious. And the more I think on it, the more the display of frank callousness on the part of the participants both impresses and sickens me.

There is an inclusion in the story of a local Polish girl leaving fruit for the inmates. It stands out and is jarring and weird. It's also a ray of loveliness in a pretty bleak narrative. I think it didn't make the movie stronger and was a darling that the director couldn't bring himself to kill.

I'm a pretty emotional viewer. I empathize strongly with people and am affected strongly by narrative depictions. It's fairly common for me to cry a little in sadness or joy during powerful moments. It was weird and interesting to have a Holocaust movie that was creepy and atmospheric but mostly didn't doink with my emotions. It slid a creeping horror into my brain instead of getting me to grieve over specific people and tragedies. There was really only one powerful gut-punch, quite late in the movie. That slowly escalating discomfort spiked suddenly with a particular display of the magnitude and...industrialization of the German enterprise.

In case you want to read more about the real people in the movie, here's a pretty good article about them:

(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 9 out of 10 nominees):

  • American Fiction (Brilliantly ironic smart comedy; Cathy: 1, Chris 1)
  • Barbie (Spectacular and sly doll's-eye-view of womanhood; Cathy 2, Chris 4)
  • The Zone of Interest (Masterpiece of monstrous implications; Cathy: 3, Chris 3)
  • Past Lives (Excellent exploration of love and human connections; Cathy 4, Chris 2)
  • Oppenheimer (Long, important, and explosive; Cathy: 5, Chris: 5)
  • The Holdovers (Very good teacher/student relationship story; Cathy 6, Chris 6)
  • Anatomy of a Fall (Beautiful courtroom drama; Cathy: 7, Chris: 8)
  • Killers of the Flower Moon (Important, badly-told story; Cathy: 8, Chris: 7)
  • Maestro (Gorgeous, well-acted boring slog; Cathy: 9, Chris: 9)
Currently unranked:
  • Poor Things (Next up. Not available for streaming until Feb 27th)

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