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  • Writer's pictureGuilherme Cândido

The Zone of Interest impacts by drawing strength from its contrasts

So many films about the Holocaust have been made that it wouldn't be wrong to claim it has become a subgenre in its own right. Some of these works lean on the war, while others prefer a more intimate slice, focusing on human relationships. It's a thorny theme that could easily yield monotonous stories, but the truth is that it continues to produce treasures that couldn't be more different from each other, as seen when comparing classics like Schindler's List (1993) and Life Is Beautiful (1997). The Zone of Interest, however, fits comfortably into this niche, but might be the most divergent among its thematic counterparts.

This is because the British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer, besides being a strongly authorial filmmaker, is also a bastion of originality, a trait he has flaunted throughout his long career. Indeed, despite his years in the field, Glazer, who started by directing music videos, hasn't directed that many films. The Zone of Interest, for instance, is only his fourth feature film. In the long hiatuses between his productions, of which I still prefer Sexy Beast (2000), his debut, he did not abandon his roots, directing videos for bands that reflect the eclectic aura he orbits, such as Radiohead, Jamiroquai, and Blur.

In The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer adapted the eponymous novel written by his compatriot Martin Amis, who passed away in May last year, but only uses a sliver of its story, living up to his reputation for originality. In the plot, he chose to change the protagonist, from Boll to Rudolf Höss, a key component of the machinery built by the Third Reich. Höss, portrayed by Christian Friedel (of The White Ribbon, twice defeated at the 2010 Oscars), indeed existed and was married to Hedwig, in turn played by the great Sandra Hüller (nominated for Best Actress at this year's Oscars for Anatomy of a Fall), with whom he had five children and lived for three years on the outskirts of Birkenau, a concentration camp that became infamous not only for its size (it was the largest of all) but mainly for its location: Auschwitz. The fact that Höss was the administrative leader of the site where the bigger genocide on record occurred is a detail in Glazer's convoluted plot, but it does not go unnoticed.

Rudolf Höss was sentenced on April 2, 1947, and hanged on April 16 of the same month, claiming responsibility for the deaths of about 3 million people, with 2.5 million through immediate execution (by gas, poison, or shooting) and half a million indirectly (through starvation or disease). These details are not provided at any point during the 100 minutes of screening, but are felt through an attachment to the subtext reminiscent of Close (2022). Nor do we see him committing, at least directly, any of the acts for which he is still remembered and will never be forgotten. Glazer is careful to avoid, almost entirely, showing the victims of the German executioner. For a brief moment, it is possible to see some men wearing the infamous striped pajamas as they move through some bushes, but it is one of those appearances so brief that the viewer is a blink away from missing it.

The greatest conflict presented to Höss was a real difficulty faced by the Nazis when local prisons became too small for the volume of Jews arriving. The German, who was at the forefront of the "Final Solution" (a euphemism for the extermination designed by Hitler), received high-ranking officials to discuss alternatives, one of which even makes it to the screen during the first act, with a machine that revolutionized the gas chambers (noted only by the smoke that dirties the horizon) by reusing dormant flames. All of this, obviously, discussed as if it were a business meeting. Tudo isso, obviamente, discutido como se uma reunião de trabalho fosse. This makes the decision to not allow even a single close-up understandable, as if not even the director could bear to come so close.

Jonathan Glazer thus challenges himself to evoke terror without placing it directly before the viewer. Not by chance, it is only through the impeccable sound work that we become aware of what happens behind the long barbed walls nearby. Screams, gunshots, and sirens compose a soundscape that does not let us lower our guard, no matter how prosaic the activities we are following may be. After all, the film follows the daily life of the Höss family, who tries to lead a peaceful life despite everything. A life of luxury, it is worth noting, but mundane. As soon as Rudolf goes to work, Hedwig begins to deal with typical housewife tasks, and her helpers highlight the privileges enjoyed by the wife of an SS commander.

Children playing in the garden and the family dog (who steals the show) are just part of a meticulously engineered setup by Glazer, a storyteller who operates from the sparks that arise from contrasts. Because, make no mistake, the greatest strength of The Zone of Interest lies in its contradictions: it is a film about the Holocaust, but also about none of that; it's a powerful film, yet seemingly simple; cunningly penetrating, yet subtle; it deals with a monster, who lives like a normal being. Prosaic, yet horrifying. It is a technical work above all, which will probably alienate a large part of the audience (especially those who see Cinema as mere entertainment, instead of the Art that it is). These are normal people performing normal tasks, it should be noted, although there is absolutely nothing normal about the setting.

Mica Levi's soundtrack, nominated for an Oscar for Jackie in 2017 but scandalously snubbed this year, adopts chords worthy of horror films, especially in the rare moments when Jonathan Glazer allows himself some aesthetic flourish: simulating a night vision camera, the filmmaker creates an image that looks more like a moving negative, and the guttural sounds conceived by Levi lay bare the discomfort of the viewer. Intriguingly, these scenes featuring a little girl and her diligent work with apples - strong candidates to receive a more auspicious musical treatment in the hands of another professional - are the ones that gain such a sinister attire, in yet another antithesis made by Glazer.

The sequences at the Höss household, for example, are captured by the Polish DP Lukasz Zal (also Oscar-nominated for Cold War, 2018) with a greyish veil that produces an intentionally strange lighting effect. It's as if that family tried too hard to maintain an unblemished image, hence the almost blown-out light, especially because of some costumes, carefully designed by Malgorzata Karpiuk: notice, for example, how Rudolf's civilian clothes are almost always white (with an emphasis on a suit that stands out during a party), whereas the clothing of the said apple girl takes on darker tones. The production design itself corroborates this artificial reality, just compare the impeccable construction of the home inhabited by the protagonists with the one that houses the aforementioned child. As can be seen, nothing escapes the narrative azimuth, not even the Höss family's pet dog (the name “Slava” is a tribute to the story of a little dog that became famous in Ukraine for its alert barking during the War against Russia).

However, as much as Hedwig tries to keep her family oblivious to what surrounds them, ignoring it becomes impossible, as her own children make clear. On more than one occasion, it is possible to see the youngest doing the "Heil Hitler!" salute without any understanding of what it represents. He also hears a Jew being captured for picking an apple and reacts in an equally horrifying manner, just before hearing him being shot ("never do that again!"). Meanwhile, the older one, aware of what he is in contact with, is seen locking his brother in a greenhouse, shortly after bringing home human teeth (some of them gold-plated). On the other hand, Hedwig's mother cuts her visit short precisely because she cannot bear what she sees, in one of the most emblematic scenes of the film, when a huge explosion casts a red light into her room (and the reflection of the flames is seen on the old woman's face through the window glass). It's the evil that spreads, even in its most vulgar form, but no less dangerous or, worse, pernicious. And it can be present even in the most idyllic of homes...

Culminating in an equally stunning finale (full of meanings) that deserves praise for staying true to Jonathan Glazer's aversion to sensationalism, The Zone of Interest also makes a point of showing that history must, indeed, be remembered. More than that, it's crucial not to forget it, especially our mistakes, to prevent them from repeating. A lesson that perhaps we, Brazilians, should learn from the Germans to prevent the past from becoming the present.



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