Cannes #76 - “The Zone of Interest” Review
The Sun is shining bright.
Teenagers share summer love; a mother cuddles her baby; children merrily play as vibrant flowers blossom in the background. A father kisses his wife and children good morning and, after breakfast, nonchalantly goes to work. This timeless, idyllic environment is not the set of Hello Lucy, but a portrait of the Höss family. And rest assured, the grass is not greener on the other side, because the peaceful house is surrounded by the towering, concrete walls of Auschwitz.
Exactly a decade after his last work, Under The Skin, British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer has presented his most original and divisive effort to date in competition at Cannes. Loosely based on a novel by Martin Amis, there is no actual narrative to the film. Instead, most of the scenes focus on trivial, everyday life moments, intimately spying on the Höss family without getting too close.
For our characters, building an ivy-covered patio for the Summer is a more pressing concern than the bureaucratic issue of body disposal on the other side of the wall. This is the ‘zone of interest’ of the title, shining a spotlight on the banality of evil. The icy, surgical cinematography by Łukasz Żal (Cold War, Ida) remains still and distant, with a single camera movement and no closeups. The sharp digital aesthetic adds a modern layer that annihilates the illusory sense of watching scenes from the past, and makes the audience feel present. In fact, the director does not want to be a storyteller, but he rather offers a pure audiovisual experience to the audience, audaciously crafted on such a delicate subject matter.
The viewer’s active participation is key to fully appreciating the radical audacity of the film. The constant sense of discomfort is enhanced by Glazer’s cynical audiovisual edging, as he categorically denies us the monstrosities of the Holocaust. There is no visual violence whatsoever, elevating the film to a more profound level of darkness, relying on the inner depths of our imagination combined with pre-existing knowledge to fill the gaps. The devil is in the details, literally, and we can only glimpse at ominous columns of smoke in the background.
What makes the film radically terrifying, though, is its soundscape. The chirping birds are sometimes interrupted by a scream, a shot, a dog barking, or an approaching locomotive not too far away. This brutal juxtaposition is so powerful that it crosses the boundaries of cinematic language. The result is a sensational, unique, daring shock.