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"The Zone of Interest" Review

As we near the end of this year's Oscars Death March along with Past Lives, the other film nominated for Best Picture this year I had no freaking idea about was The Zone of Interest, which Google told me it was about the family of the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz living an idyllic life literally on the other side of the wall from the camp. Holocaust movies used to be a staple of Oscar, but they've fallen from favor post-Schindler's List as they've chosen to focus on more sexy topics like racism and LGBTQ+LMNOPWTFBBQ subjects. It's nominated for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Sound, and International Picture (representing Great Britain, though it's in German meaning subtitles).

And that sentence describing the plot pretty much describes the entirety of the plot, such as it is, of the movie. Adapted from the Martin Amis novel, The Zone of Interest is about Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, also nominated for Best Actress in Anatomy of a Fall) and their five children (let's call them Greta, Helga, Groucho, Harpo, and Baby Jake) as they live a posh life in a nice house with gardens and a small pool and greenhouse. Hedwig models a nice fur coat courtesy of the Jewish woman who won't be needing it anymore. A worker in striped pajamas is glimpsed tending Rudolph's horse.

Sure, there are the sounds of genocide wafting in - gunshots, screams, cries, dogs barking, the paranoia-inducing rumble of the machinery of death - and it's inconvenient when the winds shift and blow the odor and ashes of the exterminated onto the laundry on the lines or when a human jaw bumps into you while your fishing requiring yanking the children from the river and scrubbing them in the bath, but the bosses are impressed with Rudolph's efficiency and there's talk of promotion. Life is good.

If this sounds glib and dismissive of the horrors of the Holocaust, it's intentional because writer-director Jonathan Glazer (whose 2004 film Birth, about Nicole Kidman believing a 10-year-old boy is her reincarnated dead husband, was just awful) has taken the concept of the banality of evil and stretched it out over 105 airless minutes where it begins to take on the aura of an Andy Kaufman bit where the utter lack of humor is what makes it funny.

From the four-minute "overture" which sounds like someone fell asleep on a keyboard triggering an ambient techno patch over a black screen to extended shots of the pale Aryan family enjoying a trip to the river then driving home for a loooong time then lots of watching the help hang the laundry, Glazer relies on locked down camera angles (he wired the house with a bunch of fixed digital cameras recording constantly so the actors didn't have crew disturbing them in what Glazer called, "Big Brother [the TV show] with Nazis") or very rigid tracking shots a la Stanley Kubrick which I suppose is meant to give the viewer a voyeuristic perspective, but it's comes off as self-consciously pretentious. This doesn't even include the bizarre interludes filmed with an infrared camera of a girl hiding fruits where prisoners would be laboring which look like black and white film negative. ( I had to look up a synopsis to find out who the girl was.)

 The way people blasely discuss things like when Hedwig's visiting mother muses whether the Jewish woman she worked for was over the wall in the camp getting what Jews had coming before grousing how she got outbid on some curtains of hers or the designers of a more efficient crematory design which will allow for maximum throughput of people needing incinerating, the Holocaust is portrayed as being thought of as dispassionately as a logistics puzzle or how much ash should be spread in the garden to nourish the crops with the ash coming from one the million-plus people next door.

The film ends with a bizarre flash-forward of workers dusting and sweeping Auschwitz as it is today, a tourist destination with exhibits of the piles of luggage and shoes arriving guests had confiscated as a reminder of one of humanity's darkest chapters.

But does anyone really need to be told that the Holocaust was bad, mmmkay? Any irony that such monstrous deeds were perpetrated by people NOT acting like Hitler, barking in angry German as shown on newsreels, is ironically tempered now by the flood wealthy celebrities demanding that Israel, the Jewish state established in the wake of the Holocaust, stop protecting itself after the 10/7 Hamas attacks which killed over 1200 people solely for being Jewish in the worst day of mass murder since the Holocaust.

Are celebrities and the Academy aware of the disconnect between honoring this movie with awards while the members such as Best Supporting Actress nominee America Ferrera and two-time Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett demanding a ceasefire to save the attackers and preserve their ability to continue raining rockets down on civilian areas of Israel? Is the ruthless murder of Jews bad or not, Hollyweird?

While smartly crafted and deliberately told, The Zone of Interest never really engages the viewer because nothing ever changes. No characters change; the way they are in the beginning is the way they are in the end. It's 1-3/4 hours of not much happening, though plus points for doing little in half the time Killers of the Flower Moon wasted. It's purely cerebral about something usual meant to be felt viscerally. Frankly, you'll learn more about Höss in this Smithsonian magazine feature released in conjunction with interest in the film.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.


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