The serene family at the center of “The Zone of Interest” are Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), who live next door to the complex of death and slave-labor camps known as Auschwitz. Höss (also spelled Hoess), a key figure in designing and implementing Hitler’s “final solution” of decimating Europe’s Jewish population, is the camp commandant; Hedwig runs the household like a sharp-eyed Lady Macbeth, helping herself to the clothes and valuables her husband and his colleagues have looted from their dispossessed prisoners. (“Chocolate. If you see it. Any goodies,” she requests before Rudolf goes to work the next day.)
Together, the Hösses have built a private Eden amid the horror that is made palpable by menacing dog barks and the occasional puffs of smoke floating over their garden wall; the order and beauty of their home only become more grotesque as their complicity comes into more rigorous and excruciating focus. Their household staff is made up of locals and prisoners from the nearby camp; when Rudolf takes a meeting in his home office, the talk is of “loads” and “pieces,” as well as a new, more efficient crematorium: “Burn, cool, unload, reload.”
On the most surface level, “The Zone of Interest,” which Glazer adapted from Martin Amis’s novel, is about denial and Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. But the mental contortions Rudolf and Hedwig go through to justify their own monstrosity go beyond obliviousness into something far more insidious and timeless. In traditional films about the Holocaust, it’s often all too easy for viewers to distance themselves from the Big Bad Nazis; here, the act of seeing and not caring — or, worse, exploiting the opportunity to pretend not to see — becomes an index of the human capacity for self-justifying cruelty. As Rudolf navigates the greasy pole of Third Reich bureaucracy, it becomes clear that his and Hedwig’s personal mission isn’t just to wipe out the Jews (although their class and cultural resentments are made obvious in muttered asides), but to support Hitler’s hegemonic claim that the country’s future lies in the east: Nationalism, nativism and tribal arrogance swirl together into something like a fever, simmering just under the surface of the carefully cultivated life of people who call themselves “settler farmers” and “pioneers of the East.”
Glazer is a disciplined and austerely imaginative world-builder, as evidenced in such films as “Sexy Beast,” “Birth” and “Under the Skin”; he films “The Zone of Interest” with vérité intimacy and icily rigorous precision, using as many as 10 cameras and several microphones to capture Friedel’s and Hüller’s movements as if they were in a documentary. The form follows the content: Whereas Amis fictionalized the Hösses in his book, Glazer and his production team delved into research on the real-life family, taking scenes and dialogue from actual conversations, recounted by servants and other eyewitnesses and archived for posterity. (One of Hedwig’s most chilling moments, when she rebukes a maid by threatening to have her ashes “spread across the fields of Babice,” reportedly really happened.) But Glazer introduces moments of self-conscious stylization as well, interjecting night-vision scenes of a girl leaving apples for imprisoned workers, and using Mica Levi’s slashing, brilliantly dissonant musical score to give the movie the eerily foreboding tone of a rose-hued dream curdling into a bloody nightmare. (The night-vision scenes, as well as a stark series of shots taken at Auschwitz in the present day, are the rare moments where the film deviates from the Hösses’ point of view.)
Glazer has come in for criticism from some quarters for keeping the graphic realities of Auschwitz mostly off-screen. But, as with 2015’s “Son of Saul,” the power of “The Zone of Interest” lies in the demands it makes of the audience’s own moral imagination. The scenario that Glazer creates and the performances of his lead players — Hüller is especially skillful here, affecting an ungainly gait and martinet-like manner to play the overbearing Hedwig — serve as a portal, challenging viewers to morph from spectators to participants, grappling with the enduring truth that we’re all capable of knowing evil when we see it, even when it suits our interests to look away.
At one point, the girl with the apples comes across a tin box containing the lyrics to a Yiddish song called “Sunbeams,” composed by the real-life Auschwitz prisoner Joseph Wulf; although “The Zone of Interest” doesn’t include postscripts, it bears noting that Rudolf Höss was hanged for war crimes in 1947 after testifying at the trials in Nuremberg. Hedwig died in 1989, while visiting her daughter in Washington, D.C.
For his part, Wulf escaped a death march in 1945 and spent the next several years researching and writing about the realities of the Holocaust, before taking his own life in 1974. He left a note expressing his despair that his work had had no impact. “You can document everything to death for the Germans,” he wrote, concluding that “the mass murderers walk around free, live in their little houses, and grow flowers.”
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains thematic material, some suggestive material and smoking. In German with subtitles. 106 minutes.