The Zone of Interest is a horror film.
That isn’t a “genre” classification, by the way; the movie lacks the “traditional” tropes and conventions commonly associated with the most narrow, stringent application of that (often reductive) label, which tends to conjure images of ghosts, ghouls, and machete-wielding maniacs. Still, the intent of the story is to terrify the audience—it simply accomplishes this goal through subtler means than, say, Friday the 13th or The Evil Dead. There is, for example, little explicit bloodshed; the atrocities occur almost entirely offscreen. Yet “implication” doesn’t dull the impact of the violence; on the contrary, it somehow feels more confrontational (albeit less exploitative) than outright showing mass graves and gallons of gore.
The narrative revolves around a series of chilling juxtapositions. Seemingly ordinary family meals and joyful birthday celebrations, for instance, are lent a sinister tone by virtue of the fact that the patriarch wears the uniform of a high-ranking SS officer. The mother, meanwhile, tends her garden, taking great pride in the colorful, fragrant flowers and bountiful vegetables; she then casually mentions that she hopes her plants and crops will eventually obscure the drab, dreary concrete wall at the rear of the property—a barrier that borders Auschwitz. Indeed, the protagonists literally live in the shadow of the notorious death camp. They dress themselves in clothing and jewelry confiscated from the Jewish prisoners; the eldest son has even made a hobby of collecting discarded gold teeth and dental plates. At night, the father stands on the back porch, enjoying a cigar as he watches the black smoke billowing above the crematorium chimneys—the perverse epitome of a professional admiring a “job well done.” The household servants—local girls hired from the nearby village—dutifully clear the silverware, scrub the floors, and polish the master’s boots, constantly tormented by the knowledge that their very survival depends upon the “benevolence” of their employers.
Director Jonathan Glazer observes the action with an unnervingly cold detachment. The predominantly static camera and rigidly symmetrical framing are reminiscent of the works of Roy Andersson and Chantal Akerman. This deliberately mundane, undramatic visual style emphasizes the inherent humanity of the subjects: they’re Nazis, yes, but they’re also people—a somewhat clichéd theme that nevertheless remains relevant and resonant. Anybody, after all, is capable of choosing evil; we must therefore be vigilant, lest we become history’s next monster.
Thus, The Zone of Interest is objective in its presentation, but not nonjudgmental. And that is a vital distinction.