Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Nazi lives shielded from Holocaust horror


 If you look at the above photo, you'd be hard pressed to know that it's taken from a movie that, among other things, depicts the family of Rudolph Hoss, the long-standing commandant of Auschwitz who built a career on increasing the efficiency of murdering Jews. That indigestible contrast helps distinguish director Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest, a chilling quasi-adaptation of a novel by the late Martin Amis
    I say quasi-adaptation because those familiar with Amis's novel will find something quite different in Glazer's movie. Amis wrote about a variety of fictional characters; Glazer concentrates on Hoss, a real person, his wife Hedwig, and a few other figures. 
  If you're looking for a movie that probes the deep recesses of Hoss's personality, you'll come away empty-handed. Glazer keeps us at a distance from the characters in his movie. He uses few close-ups and often presents dialogue in a way that makes it sound as if we're eavesdropping on inane conversations in the house where the commandant lives with his wife, five children, and a few domestic helpers.
    Glazer opens the film with a long section of ... nothing. No image is seen. Only Mica Levi's eerie disorienting score let's us know the film has begun. This purposeful emptiness serves as an overture that tells us we're about to enter a world that will turn banality -- household chatter, a riverside picnic, kids playing in a swimming pool -- into something horribly bizarre, the pretense of normality in the midst of mass murder. 
     Everything in The Zone of Interest is tainted by what we know is happening beyond the insular confines of the house and its well-tended gardens. We're embarking on a journey into the aberrant; Third Reich domesticity leaves a nightmarish aftertaste, a pill that sticks in the throat and can’t be swallowed. 
     Glazer keeps the horrors of Auschwitz at bay. He suggests them with a constant roar of crematoriums, sprews of black smoke, the occasional pop of gunshots, and intermittent screams, all of which provide a horrific backdrop to lives that are being shielded from terror. Hedwig tries on clothes that were taken from Jewish women who've been gassed, distributing discarded items to her female servants. Just another day.
      At one point Hedwig's visiting mother marvels at the life of ease and status jowithin the Nazi hierarchy that her daughter has attained. 
      I haven't mentioned the actors yet. That's for a reason. We see these performances as if observed from afar  -- if not literally, then certainly on an emotional level. 
       Christian Friedel portrays Hoss as an ambitious martinet. A crop of black hair springs across the top of his otherwise shaved head. He celebrates a birthday in Auschwitz but never seems particularly happy about it or anything else. He reads his children bedtime stories.
      If I said that Hoss isn't happy; it's also necessary to say that he's not unhappy either. When he's told he'll be transferred from Auschwitz, he's upset, but when he learns that he'll be brought back to preside over the death of Hungry's Jews toward the end of the war, he regains the respect of his Nazi cohorts.
        Seen recently in Anatomy of a Fall,  Sandra Huller plays Hedwig Hoss, a woman who knows that she's punching above her social weight. She doesn't want to abandon the privileges living in Auschwitz affords. Huller gives Hedwig an ungainly almost matronly walk and, for the most part, Glazer doesn't allow his camera to dwell on her face; we usually see her in head-to-toe images as she scurries about the house.
        Glazer commits fully to the style he has chosen for the film. He sometimes interrupts the proceedings with visual blank spots that mirror the film’s opening. One of them floods the screen with vivid red, blood perhaps. Toward the end of the film, he leaps forward in time, showing images from Auschwitz, which today is a museum devoted to preserving memories of the horror that occurred there.
        Abel Gance, the great director of the silent film Napoleon, once said that we should never leave a theater in the same state in which we arrived. If this kind of transformation can be taken as one mark of greatness, Glazer has succeeded. 
          I left The Zone of Interest feeling as if the experience Glazer had created wouldn't wash off easily. By current standards, The Zone of Interest is short, one hour and 45 minutes. But it's also a film that obliterates any sense of time, trapping us in a world where the value of everything feels tainted by a terrible perversity.
         Glazer immerses us in an infected world;  even the flowers in Hedwig's garden aren't immune. They brim with postcard colors. But Auschwitz makes us see them as a sickening mockery of beauty. The roses. I would guess, probably smell of death.

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