The comfort of dissonance: The Zone of Interest is a sickening depiction of horror reduced to the everyday

Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of A24

The relationship between aesthetics and ethics is a slippery one at best. But there are no ethics without emotions, and the most striking thing about The Zone of Interest, the new work from visionary Jonathan Glazer, is that it depicts a complete void; of empathy, of colour – figuratively and to a certain extent literally – and of basic humanity.

It is a vanitas for our age of bleak cruelty, in which horror is normalised to the extent that images of unfathomable suffering perforate our screens and collective consciousness so that it’s all too easy to feel nothing at all.

It’s an artwork that drags us back to the evils of the Holocaust to force us, frankly and subjectively, to examine the ways in which we are complicit with the very systems of cruelty which recur throughout history like tumours; and, crucially, those who perpetuate them.

Speaking of, when we first see Rudolf and Hedwig Höss (Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller) it’s in a scene of bucolic bliss. The birds sing and children toddle in a clear stream. Later, for his birthday, Rudolf is presented with a canoe and the paint stains their baby’s bottom green. You’d be forgiven for failing to notice the guard tower and barracks peering over the walls of their garden.

Höss was the real-life commandant of Auschwitz: each morning he kisses the children goodbye and strolls next door to oversee the unthinkable. Hedwig tends to the roses in her immaculate garden. Is a flower still beautiful if it’s on the same soil as Auschwitz? Glazer, in one sequence of close-ups, forces us to contemplate an answer.

Höss ran Auschwitz as a factory for torture and murder in which the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum estimate 1.1 million men, women and children were killed. Yet most striking about the film is in Glazer’s staunch refusal to literally depict the horrors of the camp.

Save for one horrific low-angle shot of Höss with plumes of black smoke billowing from behind his head, Glazer is far more interested in showing the luxurious comforts that Höss and Hedwig were afforded by their proximity to atrocity.

Hüller plays Hedwig like a curled python: in one scene she tries on a fur coat pillaged from a new arrival to the camp and excitedly finds a lipstick in the pocket, in another she threatens to have a servant’s ashes scattered in the fields of Babice for mislaying the table.

The extremes of Hedwig’s personality contrast with Höss’, who appears happy to do the job and be content in his belief that he’s doing the right thing. We see him stop to pet a dog and you’d be forgiven for forgetting that this was the man who, on multiple occasions, condemned random prisoners to death by starvation over the escape of one inmate. A man of contrasts, then, in a film bursting with them.

Lee, who runs Mockingbird Cinema, is keen to stress before the screening that the projector isn’t broken; after a brief credits over foggy whiteness, we sit in blackness for at least a minute while Mica Levi’s expressionistic score belches and whines like some infernal machine. Evil has no banal middle-ground, Glazer stresses. It’s black and white. You’re complicit or you aren’t.

There is a pall of rot seeped into the very images we see. Glazer and cinematographer Łukasz Żal shoot entirely in natural light, which renders the image as sickeningly muted and pale.

Some of the characters, like Hedwig’s mother Linna (Imogen Kogge), retch and splutter incessantly. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of living downwind from a furnace. Or maybe it’s just an alignment of body and soul.

The dissonance between ignorance and complicity is evoked too by Johnny Burn’s superlative sound design which through-scores the entire film with the sounds of the unthinkable. The constant screaming, the barking of dogs, the chugging of furnaces. Set against constant depictions of domestic comfort it’s legitimately nauseating.

A glimmer of hope is found in a young Polish girl inhabiting the titular Zone – an area surrounding Auschwitz that was still closely monitored by the Nazis – who sneaks into the camp under the cover of night to hide apples for the prisoners.

Glazer and Żal shoot these scenes in monochrome infrared and perhaps lay it on a bit thick, ostensibly suggesting that the act of hiding food in Auschwitz is so kind that it breaks the colour spectrum.

But when placed alongside Glazer’s climactic coup de cinema, which quietly pulls us into the present, it suggests that the good of humanity will only prevail if its evils are preserved for all to reckon with. How will we know ourselves otherwise?

This is punishingly forceful filmmaking from one of our most vital cinematic artists. The dissonance between what we see and hear in The Zone of Interest plunges us into an abyss of torture and picnics, of lilacs and drownings.

It slices through the noise of contemporary debate like a scalpel along flesh; the evil of Glazer’s vision of Auschwitz is not banal or ignorant, it is willing and glad. I can think of no artwork so horrendously necessary for our species to witness.

The Zone of Interest – official trailer

The Zone of Interest releases in cinemas on 2 February with preview screenings at Mockingbird Cinema on 27 and 28 January. For Birmingham screenings follow the below links:

The Electric Cinema:
Mockingbird Cinema:

For more on The Zone of Interest visit: