Movie Review:There’s No Story Here: "The Zone Of Interest" And The Deglorification Of Violence

A serious discussion on the nature of violence in film, with specific reference to its glorification for the purposes of entertainment, has, I believe, never been more necessary than it is today. After all, violence is omnipresent on the silver screen, taking many different forms, be it in the form of action films, in which we are meant to follow a protagonist as they kill dozens of adversaries in a hailstorm of bullets and impressive choreography, or the immensely popular superhero film, in which we are unceasingly barraged with scenes of destruction as a nondescript metropolitan landscape is leveled in a battle between a group of ostensibly virtuous superheroes and the so-called villains, with no thought given to the massive scale of violence perpetrated on the city and its inhabitants. These flippant depictions of violence have the potential to be extremely harmful, as they encourage a sort of numbing effect to violence both on film and in the real world.

Some films are thankfully not as brazen in their depictions of violence: the brutality of war, for instance, and the unspeakable atrocities committed during wartime are often captured with the intention of impressing upon the audience the destructive and horrific nature of war. However, I would argue that the very act of framing the horrific events that take place during wartime in conventional cinematic narratives unintentionally glorifies the violence that took place.

That’s why no film I’ve ever seen has managed to make me think about the nature of violence, both cinematically and historically, as The Zone of Interest has. Jonathan Glazer’s latest film, in which we follow the lives of the commandant of Auschwitz and his family, was, like other films of its ilk, researched meticulously: Glazer and company spent several years researching the central figures involved in collaboration with the Auschwitz Museum and other organizations. However, it differs from other films of its nature, films depicting the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, precisely in the way in which it depicts said atrocities.

Films such as Schindler’s List and The Pianist, for instance, have captured the horrors of the Holocaust in graphic, excruciating detail, albeit within a traditional cinematic narrative. By contrast, no single act of overt violence is ever witnessed on screen in The Zone of Interest, nor are the subjects of the film presented in any menacing or even meaningful way. Rudolf Höss, one of the most notorious figures in the Nazi Party, is portrayed not as a hulking figure of unfathomable evil but a generally even-tempered, almost feeble man, not unlike a mid-level bureaucrat of some sort: on screen, he is only briefly glimpsed inside the walls of Auschwitz and is never depicted participating in acts of direct violence. Instead, he is mostly seen attending meetings, spending time with his children, completing mundane tasks around the house, and otherwise being a nondescript human being. Christian Friedel’s performance as Höss can hardly be described as villainous: he’s too unremarkable for that distinction. This is in stark contrast to Schindler’s List’s portrayal of Amon Göth: the character, as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in an Oscar-nominated performance, is often lauded as one of the greatest villains in cinematic history.

Höss’s family are likewise a mostly unremarkable portrait of domesticity, albeit one that is slightly askew: the concrete walls of the camp are present in many exterior shots of the Höss home and a constant bombardment of train horns, gunshots, and screams can be heard just beyond them in incredible and utterly bone-chilling sound design work. Nevertheless, the film is made up almost exclusively of unremarkable events in the lives of this family: outings at the river, visits from the in-laws, worries about being transferred, and the like. This is again in sharp contrast to a film such as The Pianist, in which horrific scenes such as the state of Warsaw during German occupation are depicted in graphic detail.

This portrayal of the Höss family is not one that is concerned with plot or narrative momentum. Few things actually happen, in any conventional narrative sense: there’s no rising action, climax, or any other traditional narrative function. This and the lack of any depiction of overt violence on screen, I believe, serves an extremely important purpose, one that I believe is fundamental to the thesis of the film: it is intent upon deconstructing the narrative constructed unintentionally or otherwise by other films of similar subject matter. By stubbornly refusing to adhere to any form of traditional narrative and not allowing the audience a glimpse of the atrocities occurring within the walls of Auschwitz, instead showing almost exclusively mundane, routine snippets of these peoples’ lives, the filmmakers are allowing the true nature of these atrocities to come through. In other words, there’s no story here: the lack of any traditional narrative asserts that these events should not be framed in conventional cinematic narrative constructs for entertainment purposes.

This will undeniably be a divisive film: it already runs the risk of dividing audiences by choosing to depict such unsavory individuals and subjecting moviegoers to a largely plotless hour and forty-five minutes, but it will undoubtedly stump those who were perhaps expecting a more traditional depiction of evil. However, I firmly believe that The Zone of Interest’s depiction of evil should be the gold standard for films of its nature going forward. After all, it would be a disservice to history and the victims of such systematic atrocities as the Holocaust or one of the many genocides occurring throughout the world at this very moment to portray those who carry them out as something as feeble as a traditional movie villain: they should be portrayed for the people they really were. Furthermore, filmmakers should strive to make moviegoers think about the nature of violence on screen in the way that Glazer and company did for me with The Zone of Interest: given the climate of real-life violence we find ourselves immersed in today, I believe it’s more important than ever to consider the effects of its depiction in cinema and take steps toward its deglorification.

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Volume 20, Issue 5, Posted 3:51 PM, 03.06.2024