The Weird Horror of The Zone of Interest

A Review of Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest”

All lovers of horror movies have developed the faculty of seeing the deeper visions hidden behind layers of shlock. I liken it to a kind of sixth sense honed in the service of a questionable taste. Though the appreciation and acceptance of horror ebbs and flows with time, the macabre has always been the last outpost of acceptable culture. Beyond, lies the pornographic and obscene.

To find a place in polite society, consumers of horror movies have learned to spot that one scene, that one shot or lone insight in a work of ill-repute that has the power to redeem it. They have learned to decode the work of art hidden behind the façade of vulgar entertainment. But once in a while a movie or a work of art like Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest – this year’s Academy Award winner for Best International Feature Film – comes along to show us a façade fitting what culture would consider the peak of sophistication, yet which hides a different kind of film altogether.

The Zone of Interest‘s style is cold and detached. The acting is naturalistic, the images as crisp as shards of ice and the themes deep and grand. Obviously this is a European art film demanding our solemn attention. But those experienced and schooled in the history of Horror will spot a different vision pressing against the respectable exterior. A vision that, in the case of The Zone of Interest, might bring down that meticulously manufactured image of propriety.

The Holocaust has always been too gruesome and mystifying for most artists to deal with. What is the right way to tackle a topic which is almost the center of a post-war religion, but a religion without metaphysics? This was the dilemma faced by the American-born writer Johnathan Little who in 2006 published his epic novel of the Holocaust The Kindly Ones. Upon publication (in French, lest anyone tries to accuse him of American philistinism and bad taste) a discourse developed regarding his decision to tell the story of the destruction of the European Jews through the eyes of unrepentant Nazi, Maximilian Aue. His defense was predictable. There is no Evil per se. There is only what people do. And without knowing it, anybody can participate in evil.

Yet Little’s protagonist Aue is hardly just anybody. He is a closeted homosexual deviant into rough trade and a compulsive masturbator who indulges in incest fantasies about his twin sister from the deserted castle that he occupies in Eastern Europe. His career of extreme vulgar violence is not enacted by “Everyman” but by a Sadean psychopath in a neo-Gothic landscape. Babies’ heads are smashed into the castle walls, packs of feral children roam the streets and Aue inserts a tree branch into his rectum. The Kindly Ones dives so deep into horror that History turns into a freak show. Instead of Arendt’s argument about the banality of evil, we are treated to History as an ultra-violent cartoon. Der Itchy und Scratchy show circa 1944.

Glazer approaches his own material from the other direction. Where Little’s book drowns the reader in blood and horror, in Glazer’s version the horror is absent. Show The Zone of Interest to a person who knows nothing of World War II, and what he will see is something resembling one of Chantal Akerman’s odes to banality. Yet instead of secularizing the horror of Auschwitz, this tactic re-mystifies it. The smoke coming out of the chimney, the plume of the incoming train appearing beyond the walls, all become attributes of an occulted truth known only to the initiated.

The Zone of Interest has something in common with Israeli writer Yehiel Dinur’s visions of Auschwitz as ‘Another Planet’. As in Glazer’s own 2013 film Under the Skin, the characters here are really human-looking ‘others’. We do not know their purpose for doing the things they do, but we only recognize their ‘otherness’ by their uncanniness. One cannot but recall the scene in Under The Skin where Scarlett Johansson’s character leaves a baby to die on the beach while watching Sandra Hüller admire her flower garden, or admire her reflection in the mirror dressed in a stolen fur coat. Like Johansson, she examines her reflection to see whether she passes as human. When she finds lipstick in one of the pockets and applies it, the gesture is like an alien mimicking a human.

The evil in The Zone of Interest has more in common with a Lovecraftian monster than with the mousey figure of Adolf Eichmann behind the glass cage in the court of Jerusalem. In an early scene, Rudolf Höss is shown blueprints for the building of a new crematorium. The obvious interpretation here is mass murder as boring logistics: square-meters, position of doorways, plumbing and removal of corpses… But one also could imagine a monster building its own haunted castle.

In the Gothic tradition, a castle is fundamentally a symbol. Its labyrinthian, shadowy hallways hide the same enigmatic void that Glazer’s unseen Auschwitz represents; it’s steeples peeking above the wall like The Marsten House from Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. In this case, it is not the cleaning of the house, plans for a new crematorium, nor the bureaucratic advancements and disappointments that are demonstrations of the banality of evil, but Auschwitz itself, which is, like the Lovecraftian entities, unknowable, indescribable, and devoid of human morals. It is banal, because we have no access to it: like an alien planet or a form of life.

The Zone of interest is a great movie not because of what it thinks it shows us but because of what it shows us in-spite of itself. In the same way that Flannery O’Connor carefully toiled to prove God through His absence in the day to day life of her characters, Glazer proved the ontological reality of Evil while incessantly trying to deny it.

The horror in The Zone of Interest comes down to this: it is not that the Everyman could live next door to the crematorium of Auschwitz, despite what we are being asked to believe, but that the Everyman builds complex structures around the mysterious void of evil. At the heart of this mystery is the meaning of evil that the post-war world has hidden in the shadow of Auschwitz and the symbols of Nazism. By borrowing techniques from horror, does The Zone of Interest help to reveal that meaning or does it further conceal it? Perhaps the deepest mystery is that there’s nothing to conceal.

Amir Naaman is an Israeli writer and gym trainer living in Berlin.

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