Holocaust films often come with their set of expected images, hardly any of which we get to see in Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, being screened in the world cinema category at the 28th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). Instead, much of the time we are watching the goings-on inside an idyllic home, with the family having happy get-togethers, children running about in the lawn and sliding into the swimming pool and the grownups having normal conversations in the gazebo, all of which have been set up in the tastefully designed home.
It is almost a perfect picture, except for one chilling detail. The house is located right outside the Auschwitz concentration camp. Rudolf Hoss, the Auschwitz commander, had chosen to build his happy home right outside the walls of the camp, where lives were being crushed and turned into ash, which sometimes end up as part of the fodder in their vast garden. Here is someone who sees it as nothing more than part and parcel of his job, and comes back home every evening with the satisfaction of a job well done, without giving a thought for the nature of the job.
Even when he talks about the plans for expanding the incinerating capacity of the camp, so that the killings can be carried out more efficiently, we get the feeling that he is talking about a normal factory. Glazer uses sound to great effect in conveying the enormity of the tragedy taking place beyond the walls. Our only hint to what is happening next door are the droning sounds of the machinery that works nonstop day and night and the thick black smoke billowing out of the camp. At many points, a hundred muffled screams merge with this droning sound, even as the family goes about their daily life.
The commander’s wife Hedwig Hoss (Sandra Huller, who plays the central role in another festival favourite Anatomy of a Fall) has painstakingly built this house, lording over its every detail, a fact which she tells visitors. The only time she is visibly disturbed is when the commander gets a promotion and is required to move to a different place. She refuses to move from the place, which she thinks is “an ideal place for the kids to grow up”. At one point, the screen switches briefly to the disturbing exhibits at the present day Auschwitz museum, near where it was filmed.
The Zone of Interest gives one a sense of how the evilness that we see around can come from people who seem to be otherwise normal. Maybe, decades from now, films like this will be made about the people behind the inhuman atrocities in Gaza, because the world is always a little too late to react when such events happen.