Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Ghosts in the Machine: The Zone of Interest

I didn’t really want to see The Zone of Interest. A movie set in the stately home of the Nazi overlord of Auschwitz hardly seemed like a lot of fun. Still, the awards for this German-language film—shot near the Polish burg where the events actually happened—keep on coming. There are five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer is up for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for this project, to which he has devoted his life for the past decade.

 For me watching The Zone of Interest was a matter of chance. I had a pass to see a new science fiction film set in Outer Space. But when I arrived at the theatre on a quiet weekday night, all the seats to the special screening were taken. That left me wandering the multiplex, aware I could duck into any auditorium without creating problems. And The Zone of Interest was starting in less than fifteen minutes. The universe seemed to be telling me something.

 I guarantee I don’t want to re-watch The Zone of Interest anytime soon. But that doesn’t take away from the dazzling filmmaking I saw on screen. Everything in the movie is meant to unsettle the viewer, from the ominous dark screen that lingers at the beginning to the eerie soundtrack, intended to remind us that on the other side of the garden wall from the Hōss family’s comfy digs are the crematoria in which thousands of Jews are daily being sent to their deaths. We never see the victims, but it’s impossible to forget about them. Early in the film, Frau Hōss receives a bundle from a local man. In it is a full-length fur coat that she tries on, admiring herself in a mirror. She digs a lipstick out of a coat pocket, checking that out too. It’s clear to us, though the words are never quite spoken, that the coat was ripped off one of Auschwitz’s Jewish victims. Frau  Hōss accepts it with equanimity, perfectly satisfied with the facts of her life: her children, her garden, her subservient domestic staff, her husband with his snug Nazi uniform and tall, shiny boots.

 Husband Rudolf (an actual historical figure) seems at first glance nicer than his chilly wife. He dotes on the five kids, for one thing, and loves fishing in the local river, until he comes upon something ominous that we suspect is human remains. Otherwise he’s busy playing politics with regard to his superiors, is seen counting a very large pile of cash, and (as is suggested in an eerie scene) has been having his way with one of the local housemaids. Late in the film, he returns to Headquarters to be feted and given a higher position. At an elegant soiree in a magnificent ballroom, he climbs to the balcony and looks down on all the beautiful people below. Then, in a late-night phone call, he tells his wife that he fantasized about the effort it would take to gas them all, given the challenges of the room’s high ceiling.

 That’s one way in which we see the Nazi outlook shaping those who accept it. In a movie that always remains low-key, we also watch one of the Hōss sons cheerily lock his little brother in the family greenhouse, enjoying the terror he’s creating. And there are mystery moments when the ghosts of the dead seem to be walking. I was glad to leave this world and retreat to a nearby café   where Frank Capra’s delightful It Happened One Night was playing out on a blank wall. Phew!


No comments:

Post a Comment