Oscar Watch 2023: The Zone of Interest


As we’ve come to the end of Oscar Watch 2023, I feel like this exercise was well worth the effort I put into it. A lot of mainstream films don’t appeal to me and really haven’t for some time, so I try my best to look outside of heavily marketed movies for things to watch. Readers will know my penchant for Kung Fu films, but I also like character dramas, introspective sci-fi films, taut thrillers, etc. The “Best Picture” nominees this year provided a lot of that and were mostly high quality. It’s been a blast.

Ending with The Zone of Interest, however, was maybe not the best call. Foremost, I understand the importance of this film and what director Jonathan Glazer has accomplished with it. I will explain all of that below. At the same time, I can’t say that I enjoyed watching the movie as it can be a bit monotonous. I think the film works more for the discussions it generates after rather than any sequence of events it depicts.

What’s sad is that the most well-known thing about The Zone of Interest is the way right-wing pundits took Glazer’s Oscar acceptance speech out of context to somehow label him an antisemite. If you’re completely unable to read sub-text, which a shockingly large number of people are, then maybe after watching the film you would believe it was a pro-Nazi picture. I’m not sure how one would draw that conclusion, but stupider things have happened.

The Zone of Interest

© A24

Since there isn’t really a plot to speak of in The Zone of Interest, I’ll give a summary of what the film focuses on as I don’t think marketing did a particularly great job of explaining it. The film follows the life of Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel), a real-life commandant of Auschwitz, as he goes through his day-to-day troubles following a day at work. His wife, Hedwig Hoss (Sandra Huller), raises the kids and is a dutiful wife until Rudolf is set to be transferred to Berlin. Then she gets worried about what will happen to their home and their children.

Right from the start, you should see how ludicrous this film is. The head of Auschwitz is living a regular life as if he’s somehow not part of the worst modern atrocity ever committed by man. As I explained to my mom the day after I watched it, you’re basically imagining Hoss coming home and going, “Eh, had a tough day at Auschwitz. Had to kill a couple of hundred Jews. What’s for dinner, honey?” It’s disgusting.

All of that was the intention of the film. As Glazer told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview, “So much cinema, particularly to do with the Holocaust, shows the perpetrators as almost mythologically evil. I realized I wanted to make a film about these people and their ordinariness.” Mission accomplished, for certain, especially with the usage of hidden cameras to frame the proceedings as if they were real.

© A24

One of the most common descriptors across multiple reviews and interviews is that The Zone of Interest is about the “Banality of Evil.” To the Hoss family, nothing they are doing is wrong. Either that or they are so detached that deep down they know it’s wrong and just don’t care. From Glazer’s point of view, the film is trying to showcase how racism and evil aren’t cartoonishly identifiable. Films love to portray Nazis and other historical bad guys as these blatantly malicious foes that scream their hatred at the top of their lungs, but that wasn’t the case.

The scene that solidifies this in The Zone of Interest is Rudolf’s late-night call to his wife after attending a ceremony. The party was held in honor of Hoss for a new operation named after him and he wanted to break the “good” news to his spouse. She’s so tired since it’s late at night and can’t really muster up much enthusiasm. When she asks if any important people were there, Rudolf responds, “I wasn’t really paying attention… I was too busy thinking how I could gas everyone in the room.” She simply responds with something to the effect of “That’s nice” and then they say goodnight to each other.

There are also plenty of scenes where Hedwig is tending to her children as they play in their quaint garden pool while you see a literal smokestack from Auschwitz pumping out smog and coating the flowers in ash. The Zone of Interest is a pretty great horror movie, but most of the film just crawls along at a glacial pace. Again, this is all intentional, but I feel as if the film makes its point in roughly 15 minutes and then proceeds to go for another hour and a half.

© A24

There are small bits of Glazer’s experimental touches here that I’m not sure I entirely understand. I like the lingering shots of beautiful sights such as flowers and rivers that fade out slowly while discordant music plays. I might be reading too much into it, but that makes me feel as if the life is being slowly choked out of me. It distracts from the awfully tedious main film, which is maybe the point. What I don’t really understand is the inverse shot of a young girl leaving fruit in the dirt.

At first, this infrared footage of the girl walking around at night is played when Rudolf is reading a story to his children. I thought it could have been their interpretation of what their father was saying. Later on, we see that it is an actual girl dodging the Nazis as she leaves food for other survivors, but then that never connects to anything going on with the Hoss’ life. The colorization does wonders for making you feel uncomfortable, but they were mostly included as an homage to Holocaust survivor Aleksandra Brystron-Kolodziejczyk who did something similar.

I also feel that framing the movie from the perspective of the Hoss’ does a disservice to the theme Glazer wanted to capture. I’m not going to suddenly proclaim The Zone of Interest endorses Nazism as that is certainly not true. What I mean is, Glazer told Indie Wire that he approached writing this film in a similar manner to how philosopher Gillian Rose approached her work. He stated that The Zone of Interest was meant to show us how “we’re emotionally and politically closer to the perpetrator culture than we’d like to think.” That statement is true, but then the film follows one of the evilest men from World War 2 who was eventually executed for war crimes. Normal citizens are not like that.

© A24

Then again, as I think more about how Glazer’s acceptance speech specifically targeted Israel for committing atrocities against Palestine, maybe the movie isn’t intended for me. Average viewers will know that genocide is evil, but we aren’t the ones in control of that. Our politicians and military are. The Zone of Interest might be a film for them that says, “Look at what you’re ignoring. You’re allowing this to happen.” They have checked out and are likely responding as Hoss would.

Still, the fact that I’ve been able to write a thousand words about this film and the impact it had on me is certainly more important than whether or not I found the film “good.” This is maybe a tangent from discussing The Zone of Interest, but people need to understand that determining the effectiveness of a piece of work does not solely come down to it being “enjoyable” or “good.” I didn’t necessarily like this movie, but I completely got what Glazer’s intention was and even commend him for executing it. That’s the type of fearless filmmaking we need more of.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.