Writer-director Jonathan Glazer’s film The Zone of Interest was inspired by (rather than based on) the novel of the same name by Martin Amis.
Rudolf Höss (played in the film by Christian Friedel) was the commandant of Auschwitz between May 1940 and November 1943, and again from May 1944 to January 1945. He earned the admiration of Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders because of his innovative and efficient methods of murdering Jews, Roma and political opponents.
Höss, his wife Hedwig and their five children lived in a house separated by a concrete wall from the Auschwitz camps. In the film, they try to live a life of peace and luxury as if nothing important is going on next door, even though Rudolf’s job each day is to oversee the murder and torture of masses of innocent people. They are in such a state of moral denial that Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) asks her husband for specific colors of clothing gathered from the women who have been murdered.
When Hedwig’s mother, Linna (Imogen Kogge), comes to visit, she is impressed by how high her daughter has risen in society. But, unlike Hedwig and the rest of the family, she is unnerved by what is happening on the other side of the wall. There’s the smoke rising from the crematoriums, not to mention the screams of prisoners and the sound of executions. She wonders if the Jewish woman for whom she once worked may be in the camp…or worse. One morning, Hedwig awakes to discover that her mother has departed without saying goodbye.
A Canadian friend of mine told me that his mother-in-law survived Auschwitz-Birkenau because she was put to work. When the Nazis incinerated the Jews and others they had murdered, the only part of their bodies that wouldn’t burn was their shoulder blades. The mother-in-law’s job was to pound the shoulder blades into powder, which was then used to make the path between the camp and the Höss’s home.
Sandra Hüller has received so much praise for her dramatic roles in The Zone of Interest and Anatomy of a Fall that it is easy to forget her outstanding comic portrayals in Toni Erdmann and I’m Your Man.
After the screening I attended, a woman I had met before the screening told me this was her favorite film of the year. “It made my stomach churn throughout.” For me, it was a fine film, but far from one of the best of the year. I asked her if she had seen Son of Saul, which won the Foreign Language Academy Award in 2015 and was about 100 times more “stomach churning than The Zone of Interest. But she wasn’t listening; she just kept praising The Zone of Interest. Presumably, she and/or her husband are Academy voters, while I am not, so it remains the favorite to win the International Film Oscar. I imagine this couple will deal with 20 Days in Mariupol by refusing to watch it.