'The Zone of Interest': The Banality of Evil, Banally
Writer/director Jonathan Glazer's latest is a one-trick pony.
There’s a sequence in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers where we see how Mallory (Juliette Lewis), one half of the movie’s mass-murdering couple, met her lover and accomplice, Mickey (Woody Harrelson). Stone stages the entire flashback as an old fashioned American sitcom, complete with a laugh track - the conceit being that Mallory’s family was more Manson than Cleaver. It’s the only part of the movie that Stone presents as this perverse Leave It to Beaver, and it only lasts about four minutes, because Stone understands that any audience member who’s even half-awake will get the idea in about twenty seconds, and there’s really nowhere to take the concept. In other words, doing it for any longer would really be beating the audience over the head with the not-very-subtle point.
Jonathan Glazer’s new adaptation of the Martin Amis novel The Zone of Interest is tonally very different from ‘I Love Mallory,’ but the idea is more or less the same: it aims to dramatize Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” via an ironic contrast between something wholesome and something awful… in this case, the something wholesome being a German family in the 1940s living in an idyllic country estate one summer, and the something awful being that the idyllic country estate is right next door to Auschwitz, because the family’s father is Rudolf Höss, the SS officer who was in charge of that concentration camp for four of the five years it existed.
Rather than use anything as over-the-top as a laugh track, Glazer makes his point by contrasting pleasant or banal scenes with disturbing context: a mother and child waving daddy off to work as he enters Auschwitz atop a horse, greeting his co-workers with the Nazi salute, kids playing in the yard while the sounds of screaming, gunshots, and barking dogs echo in the distance, a beautiful skyline marred by dark plumes of smoke. The family seems mostly content; the biggest conflict they encounter is when Rudolf (Christian Friedel) receives a transfer order - because they’re so happy at Auschwitz, they never want to leave. When grandma comes to visit and is disturbed by the smell of burning flesh and the sight of a night sky illuminated by flames, she flees without saying farewell, lest she have to speak about the unspeakable, and the Jewish slave laborers that serve the family are almost always unacknowledged to such a degree that you’d think they were invisible; only occasionally does the mother of the family, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller from Anatomy of a Fall), lose her temper and scold or threaten them.
The problem with The Zone of Interest isn’t that it’s not disturbing (the sound design and Mica Levi’s abstract score will haunt your nightmares) so much as that Glazer, unlike Oliver Stone, doesn’t recognize that there’s nowhere to take the film once he’s relayed its primary message. The Zone of Interest is a gallery installation, not a story. Events doesn’t escalate, and beyond suggesting that Hedwig and Rudolf’s marriage is rooted in his ability to provide her with the finer things in life rather than love, the characters don’t develop - you learn little in the last ten minutes of the movie that you didn’t already learn in the first ten minutes of the movie. So The Zone of Interest winds up being more or less the same exact scene, again and again and again and again, for 105 minutes. Fortunately, that’s not long enough to make the viewer restless, but it is noticeably longer than the four minutes Stone used for ‘I Love Mallory.’
The monotony is sometimes broken up by brief, experimental sequences that hint at the horrors of Auschwitz, like a blinding white screen accompanied by a cacophony of horrors, a vivid red screen accompanied by complete silence, or a pair of scenes, filmed using night-vision, in which a young girl surreptitiously deposits apples around the camp, presumably to be found by starving prisoners. So that’s about five minutes you’re not watching a boring work meeting where the topic just so happens to be ways to make genocide more efficient or a tea party where Hedwig’s friends marvel at the cleverness of Jews hiding diamonds in their toothpaste. Phew!
Glazer’s first film, Sexy Beast, was released in 2000, and became an instant crime movie classic. Sexy Beast is about as assured a directorial debut as there’s ever been, demonstrating a grasp of narrative that will forever elude most filmmakers - so, naturally, Glazer immediately lost interest in traditionalist storytelling (notably, Sexy Beast is the only one of his movies he didn’t write or co-write). The features he has made since then - Birth (2004), Under the Skin (2014), and now The Zone of Interest - have been increasingly esoteric. I appreciate that Glazer is attempting to push the envelope, but I’m not convinced he has a final destination for that envelope firmly in mind.
For example: is the film’s repetitiveness supposed to numb the audience, lulling us into a complacency akin to that of Höss family? If so, it doesn’t come close working - maybe Hedwig and her kids are able to block out the sight of a Jewish prisoner spreading ashes outside their window, but the audience can’t.
Here’s another one: the movie opens and closes with a black screen accompanied by music, which recalls the overtures from epics of yore - is Glazer trying to comment on those films? If so, how is he doing that? Is the argument that such movies necessarily revolve around historical atrocities? Because a) that’s an inaccurate assertion, b) I doubt many audience members will even make that connection, and c) it’s the only reference to those kinds of pictures in the whole piece, so if that IS the point, he has failed to properly emphasize it.
Most troubling to me [slight SPOILERS ahead!] is a scene near the movie’s conclusion. Rudolf is in an unspecified ornate office building; as he descends the stairs, it’s clear that everyone else has gone home for the night. He stops on one floor and peers down a dark hallway. The screen goes black, save for a single pinpoint of light; then a door opens, allowing us to once again see our surroundings, and we’re no longer in the office building with Rudolf in the ‘40s - we’re in present-day Auschwitz, now a memorial and a museum, where a janitorial crew cleans the floors and polishes the displays in silence. After a couple of minutes of this, Glazer cuts back to Rudolf, who is still staring down that same dark hallway.
There’s a way to interpret this scene, I suppose, as an assertion that Rudolf is peering into the future and realizing that while he will be mostly forgotten, his misdeeds will live on forever… but that’s really giving Glazer the benefit of the doubt. Within the larger context of the movie, it feels like Glazer is drawing a direct line from the blasé nature with which Rudolf and his family treated their surroundings and the blasé nature with which the museum staff treats that same environment. It comes off as though Glazer is suggesting that there shouldn’t be a museum at Auschwitz, which is, frankly, a ludicrous inversion of “never forget.” Or, rather, if there is an argument that we should forget, Glazer doesn’t successfully make that argument here.
The bottom line is that the people who would find The Zone of Interest the most instructive will never see it. Glazer’s abstruse approach to the material ensures that the film will only ever play in arthouses for educated, liberal audiences who are already well acquainted with Arendt’s famous philosophical tenet. One is left with the impression not that Glazer has something stupendously profound to say, but that the zone in which he is most interested in his own navel.