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.

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