Thursday, April 11, 2024

The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023)

House & garden

Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest begins with a band of solid black held for an interminable time-- Mica Levi's sound collages growling from the big screen-- then cut to a German family picnicking on a lakeside meadow. They pack up, go home, arrive after sunset, fall asleep (mother and father in separate beds). Next morning father is hurriedly dressing but the children play a little game, blindfolding him and leading him to the front courtyard where they surprise him with a new canoe, and of course if you know anything about the film's premise you're waiting-- but even if you don't know anything you can't help but tense up as you wonder: why is the camera so claustrophobically locked in the direction of the house, why are we seeing the canoe only from one side and not the other? Finally father must leave, steps away from the canoe; cut to that long-anticipated reverse shot-- father climbs onto his horse, a guard tower looming over him as his animal walks him leisurely into work. 

It's the perfect domestic situation: freshly constructed two-story house with black iron railings and tiled roof, a vast garden carpeted with immaculately manicured grass and straightlimbed young trees, bright bunches of phlox, roses, azaleas, dahlias-- oddly, flowers common to North America (you might think the film had been sponsored by House & Garden)-- not to mention vegetables (beetroot, fennel, kohlrabi, cabbage, even a hive for honey). Best of all, the father's commute is a mere minute away, out past the lawn and into the gates of Auschwitz. 

A brilliant conceit tho Glazer can't be credited for the idea: the title comes from Martin Amis' novel of the same name, inspired by the life of one Rudolf Hoss, Auschwitz's longest-lasting commandant. Glazer found Hoss more interesting and dispensed with Amis' melodrama of a love triangle between the commandant's wife and a German officer: the director shot much of the film not in Hoss' real house but in a nearby building also adjacent to the camp, restored to look like Hoss' house; he installed multiple cameras throughout house and garden to allow the actors to move freely without worrying about camera angles and blocking (basically creating a Big Brother in Auschwitz, or a three-dimensional ant farm). 

Glazer made the decision not to let us see Auschwitz but hear it. Sound designer and longtime collaborator Johnnie Burn spent a year building a library of sound effects-- collecting testimonies and events, studying a map of the camp to determine distance and possible reverberations. Burn's magic culminates in the moment where Hoss' mother-in-law looks at the glow from the windows and listens to the muted roar of crematorium flames; she leaves the next day with only a scribbled note as explanation.

O there are weaknesses. Glazer, possibly to contrast with the implied grimness, inserts the story of a Polish girl planting apples along the way for camp workers to find and eat; he surrounds this note of hope with Levi's rumbling collages. The note (a true story) feels oddly out of place; Glazer's grip on the film is so remarkably tight any loosening feels like a compromise of the director's uncompromising approach. 

A more serious flaw I couldn't quite articulate till Glazer introduced his most audacious conceit (skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film): Hoss experiences a kind of time-slip and senses-- perhaps even hears-- the camps' ultimate fate: to become museums dedicated to the memory of the victims, attendants conscientiously positioning stanchions, sweeping the floor, polishing display glass exhibiting thousands of abandoned shoes.

Glazer likely intended his film to be a way of tearing off the scar tissue we've formed over the memories-- approach from an angle we haven't quite seen before, the everyday view of those either responsible or complicit-- but the unintended result at least for me is of sanitizing the memory, keeping it at arm's length so we can regard it from a position of safety, behind display glass. There's intelligence and care and perhaps sincerity in Glazer's approach, but I submit he doesn't transform his material so much as render it appetizing for the arthouse circuit, maybe horticulture enthusiasts (Are those dwarf banana trees and Majesty palms in the greenhouse?). 

Can't believe Hoss is merely the super-bureaucrat depicted in the film either-- he was a virulent anti-Semite who rose to the position of commandant through the force of his enthusiasm, an innovator who streamlined the killing process and suggested Zyklon B as the most efficient way to eradicate thousands. I'd say Hoss had more to do on his office phone than dictate a memo promising punishment to any officer damaging the camp's beloved lilac bushes (tho I have to admit, that provoked a few chuckles).

Isn't as if this hasn't been done before: Alain Resnais' Night and Fog-- working from a script by camp survivor Jean Cayrol-- is an impassioned plea to learn from past lessons and be alert for the upcoming fascist, but also a levelheaded unflinching look at the work put into the camps, from the government contractors (hired with a bribe or two) to the medical experiments (usually without anesthesia) to the matter-of-fact bulldozing of bodies into mass graves-- and instead of silence or experimental music, Resnais deploys a shockingly cheerful melody from Hanns Eisler, almost the kind of tune you'd hear playing in a grade school science documentary. All done in thirty minutes, and no less forceful for being so brief. 

First published in Businessworld 4.5.24

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