The Zone of Interest is a movie of the mundane. A seemingly happy family, a comfortably upper-middle class couple with a passel of kids, live in a nice modern house with a lovely garden. He goes to work every day in his work uniform, slipping through the gate, walking to where he is the manager of the factory next door. She’s proud of how they’ve moved up in life; she’s a little vain about their huge yard, and her fur coat. She mingles with other wives, and they gossip over coffee, ignoring the household staff that scurry around them. The only true plot tension is when the husband gets a promotion and has to leave to another town for his job. She convinces him to tell corporate that she and the kids want to stay in their home. It’s an idyllic place to grow up, she emphasizes. He can visit when he can, but it’s best for the children.
It’s rather a pedestrian plot really. But that is what makes Zone such a stunning and chilling film. The couple is Nazi Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller). He’s the commandant of Auschwitz, and their idyllic family home is just on the other side of the wall of the concentration camp.
The whole premise is as appalling as it is fascinating in its execution. After the initial, prolonged opening screen of black, with its indescribable wall-of-noise horror, the sound design and cinematography subtly propels the mood of the film. In the beginning, beyond the idyllic scene of suburban bliss, there’s the sound of a dull hum, a vague industrial white noise with occasional dogs barking. As scenes change, the camera allows us a little more perspective of the surroundings. Suddenly you see barbed wire atop the wall surrounding the beautiful yard. Then you see the distinct guard tower and barrack roof. Later smoke in the distance. Later the chimney stack creating the smoke. And even later fire coming from the stack at night. As the story progresses, the white noise starts to stir and become more distressingly chaotic. More barking. There’s background pop-pops of gunfire. Distant screaming.
Meanwhile, Hedwig is just getting a little snappy at her husband over small things.
Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil” when writing about Nazi Adolf Eichmann, who managed the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. This film is a jarring representation of that banality: A meeting of Nazis discussing the logistics of exterminating 700,000 Hungarians is as dull as any corporate meeting, from the perfunctory platitudes down to the mumbled, “Now, if we can all turn to page seven…” The fact that these people are all so… boring in their ordinariness makes it so deeply unsettling.
I was stunned afterward seeing The Zone of Interest. I can honestly say I have never seen a movie quite like this, and I’ve certainly never seen a Holocaust movie like this. In horror movies, we all know that the monster/demon/ghost/killer is always scarier when you can’t quite see it… when it is just beyond the shadow, or around the corner, or in this case over the wall. But it’s the sound of what you can’t see that shakes you to your core. And that is why Zone, in all of its banality, is the most effective and disturbing horror movie I’ve seen in ages.