By Lynn Venhaus
A film as necessary for this time and throughout the ages, “The Zone of Interest” is a chilling look back at how Germans normalized their extermination of Jews during the Holocaust.

SS Officer Rudolph Hoess, who served the longest as the head commandant of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland (1940-43 and 1944-45), lived in a villa next door with his wife and children.

In the shadow of atrocities, his family enjoyed their dream home, and director Jonathan Glazer depicts their daily life in the most mundane ways possible. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal chiefly observes to underline the horrors taking place a few feet away, using distance instead of close-ups to speak volumes.

This makes the scenario even more unsettling as the Third Reich masterminds meet to discuss carrying out Hitler’s orders for the “Final Solution.”

Several acclaimed films have shown us the brutality of the Holocaust, in various degrees of harrowing, including Oscar winner for Best Picture “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Son of Saul” (2015), which won the Academy Award for Best International Feature. While “The Zone of Interest” is just as haunting, the horror lies in the obvious apathy of the bystanders.

Hoess was instrumental in implementing pesticide into gas chambers that killed more than a million European Jews. (Later, at his trial, he claimed responsibility for 2.5 million deaths, the rest caused by “starvation and disease.”)

Christian Freidel plays Hoess as a dutiful Nazi, a company man who is pleased with his advancement – the undetected monster in our midst. Sandra Huller, who is having a moment with her other acclaimed performance in “Anatomy of a Fall,” Cannes Palme d’Or winner, portrays his complacent wife, Hedwig. She takes care of the children and runs the household with a desire for order.

In conversations with other wives, she is matter of fact. Her mother, Linna Hensel, played by Imogen Kogge, comes to live with them, and is impressed with their spacious digs and comfortable lifestyle, with servants at the ready and absconded goods delivered to them.

Their insensitivity and lack of empathy is revealed when interacting with others. The women guests covet what’s been pilfered from those rounded up and imprisoned or killed.

Glazer loosely adapted Martin Amis’ 2014 novel but he used real, not fictional, characters as his framework. He has constructed this historical drama to disturb because of what you don’t see and can only imagine based on details we know now.

The idyllic yard, featuring a pool and a garden, is separated by a large concrete fence, but you can hear occasional screams, gunshots, and the incinerator’s fire from a distance, and see ash floating from the crematorium.

The technical audio-visual elements, particularly the sharp editing by Paul Watts, effective sound design by Johnnie Burn and ominous music score by Mica Levi are disquieting in a slow-burn way, building on the dichotomy of the situation.

Glazer, known for “Sexy Beast” starring Ben Kingsley and “Under the Skin” starring Scarlett Johansson, has put a distinctive stamp on this cautionary tale. The end scene is one of the most powerful images in a 2023 film.

Although the film doesn’t add the real details of what happened to Hoess after Germany lost the war, it indicates that he knew their lives were doomed. Convicted of his war crimes against humanity, he was hanged at age 45 in 1947 – at Auschwitz.

“The Zone of Interest,” in subtitles, is an unforgettable work that speaks volumes by what it doesn’t say in its 1 hour, 45-minutes runtime. It is the United Kingdom’s official entry into the Academy Awards’ international feature category and was recently nominated for five Oscars. It won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.

This one will linger because it unnerves, reminding us of how quickly freedoms can be taken away and how evil flourishes when people are systematically dehumanized.

“The Zone of Interest” is a 2023 historical drama written and directed by Jonathan Glazer. It stars Christian Friedel, Sandra Huller, Imogen Kogge and Max Beck. An international feature, it is in German and has English subtitles. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, some suggestive material and smoking, the film runs 1 hour, 45 minutes. It opens in St. Louis area theaters on Jan. 26. Lynn’s Grade: A.

By Alex McPherson

Director Maria Schrader’s sci-fi dramedy, “I’m Your Man,” presents multifaceted questions about love, humanity, happiness, and loneliness in a time when technology molds to fit our every need.

Based on a short story by Emma Braslavsky, the film centers around Alma (Maren Eggert), an anthropologist working for the Pergamon museum in Berlin, studying Sumerian cuneiform tablets for traces of poetry. She’s a closed-off workaholic leading a mundane life — getting along well with co-workers, but holding deeper sadness and resistance to anything resembling romance. In exchange for more funding for her research, Alma reluctantly agrees to participate in a three-week-long study where she’s paired with a humanoid “man of her dreams” named Tom (Dan Stevens).

This android is calibrated to match her personality and adapt over time in accordance with Alma’s reactions. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go smoothly at the beginning. From the moment Tom speaks the phrase, “Your eyes are like two mountain lakes I could sink into,” Alma isn’t impressed.

As the days go on, however, Tom grows more sensitive, relatable, and attractive to her. Alma slowly but surely starts falling for him, while simultaneously regretting her burgeoning feelings, and ends up confronting the roots of her melancholy. 

Although this android might develop like a person would, is Alma’s love authentic, or purely artificial? What is Alma willing to sacrifice to achieve satisfaction in a relationship, and should humanoids like Tom be available to the public in an increasingly isolated world? Schrader doesn’t opt for easy, convenient answers — which renders “I’m Your Man” a more contemplative watch than viewers might expect.

In large part, thanks to Alma’s complexity as a protagonist and Stevens’ poignant, drolly humorous performance as Tom, the film soars in both moments of light-heartedness and serious drama, with a story ripe for discussion once the credits roll.

Indeed, “I’m Your Man” isn’t so much a conventional science-fiction story as it is an exploration of desire and the befuddling mechanics of relationships. On top of that, Schrader’s film has comedic moments sprinkled throughout — mostly involving Tom’s flawed attempts at fitting in — that lend the proceedings a certain gentleness, not exploiting the premise for crowd-pleasing cheesiness. 

Eggert’s masterful performance conveys Alma’s yearning, resentment, joy, grief, and emotional growth in a way that ensures we always empathize with her as she navigates morally fraught waters.

The script — co-written by Schrader and Jan Schomburg — gives credence to multiple, contrasting perspectives regarding her situation, and encourages viewers to ponder some of the same topics themselves in their own lives. Does the end goal of true happiness justify the means, and is the pursuit of happiness something that makes us human to begin with?

Stevens, while giving a less naturalistic performance, is absolutely outstanding as Tom. For all his robotic, stilted movements and occasional cluelessness, Stevens imbues him with a tangible soul nonetheless, as he learns and evolves from his experiences. He veers further from his robotic roots into someone approaching a human, as well as a mirror for Alma to explore her own flaws and potential for change.

Funny, cathartic, and bittersweet, this intelligent love story rarely falters. The film’s slow pace is guided along by Benedict Neuenfels’ crisp, eye-popping cinematography — initially framing Alma behind glass, looking outside with her manufactured reflection standing beside her — and Tobias Wagner’s jazz-inflected score that becomes rather haunting by the final act. Some viewers might be frustrated by the plot’s low-key rhythms and somewhat ambiguous ending, but as a meditation on a plausible near-future, “I’m Your Man” whirs with life.

Dan Stevens and Sandra Huller

“I’m Your Man” is a science fiction romantic comedy that is in German with English subtitles. Directed by Maria Schrader, it stars Maren Eggert, Dan Stevens and Sandra Huller. Rated R for some sexual content and language throughout, the runtime is 1 hour, 45 minutes. It is in theatres Oct. 1 and digitally Oct. 12. Alex’s Grade: A.