Film review: Living a dream life, as the Holocaust unfolds next door in The Zone of Interest

Madman Films

A couple are living in their dream house with landscape gardeners and domestic servants. He is Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, and she is his wife, Hedwig.

The awful premise, that it was possible to ignore the Holocaust unfolding over the back fence, is never in question.

Rudolf Höss and his wife Hedwig have five children, including blond twins and a baby, and take great pride in their house and garden.

At the two-storey stucco villa there are domestic helpers to do the drudgery and gardeners to help Hedwig with her dahlias and to train a vine over a fence that looks out onto an unsightly chimney.

Commandant Höss is a senior SS figure and this is wartime. We are in Poland and next door, at Auschwitz, Jewish prisoners are being exterminated every day. None of this is discussed but rarely has the use of sound in a film contributed so much.

The movie opens to a grey screen that stays that way for an unnervingly long time. In the background are horrifying atonal noises just short of music; they are the sounds of fear, anguish and dread.

This soundtrack from hell returns, including partway through when the screen suddenly flashes to red. Created by composer Mica Levi and sound designer Johnnie Burn, it is the soundscape of Auschwitz and mixes the mechanical noises of a crematorium and gas chambers with ghastly shrieks, barking dogs and occasional gunfire.

Höss family life, where at night the curtains are drawn as the crematorium fires up and flames leap into the sky, is idyllic. There is a picnic in a lush, green wood, followed by blackberry picking and a pleasant walk.

Goods arrive at the house: Silk underwear and a mink coat that Hedwig sends off for cleaning and repairs. There are also metal teeth, and a story about a diamond found in a tube of toothpaste.

The astonishing power of this film, based on the novel by Martin Amis, is in making us fixate on this married couple who behave normally in the midst of horror.

Domestic life goes on and everybody plays their part. At work, Rudolf Höss is designing more efficient camps that will run around the clock and can process – murder – not 400 to 500 a day but 10 times as many.

When he is promoted and sent away, Hedwig bluntly refuses to go with him.

Sandra Hüller in a scene from The Zone of Interest. Photo: A24/Madman Films

German actor Sandra Hüller (Anatomy of A Fall) was hesitant about playing Hedwig; she usually declines to play fascists to avoid even pretending to be one.

She also, as in Anatomy of a Fall, likes to fall in love with her characters no matter how complex. But after talks with director Jonathan Glazer, she took on Hedwig and plays her as a cold, frumpish, blinkered and ambitious woman hellbent on her own survival.

“You’ve certainly landed on your feet,” says Hedwig’s mother after a tour of the house. A few days later she is so appalled by her daughter she leaves without saying goodbye.

When Hedwig tells Rudolf she won’t be going with him to a new posting north of Berlin, they promise each other that after the war they will move to a farm, which is what they always wanted.

History shows that he was convicted of war crimes in 1947 and hanged at Auschwitz while Hedwig later gave testimony against some of those who worked there. At the Nuremberg trials, Rudolf Höss said that everyone, including his wife, knew exactly what was going on.

The Zone of Interest is in cinemas now.

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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