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The banality of evil: Lord Pickles reviews 'The Zone of Interest'

Venal and grasping: Hedwig Höss played by Sandra Hüller | Image by: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

3 min read

Featuring strong, nuanced performances, Jonathan Glazer’s film is a brilliant and chilling depiction of how the Holocaust happened in plain sight

The philosopher Hannah Arendt, reporting on the Eichmann trial, coined the phrase “banality of evil”. Meet Auschwitz’s commandant Rudolf Höss and his wife Hedwig, an ambitious power couple intent on climbing the corporate ladder of Nazi Germany. His particular talent lies in mass murder. Appropriate for the man who first used the pesticide Zyklon B as a method of killing, towards the end of the film we find him observing a glitzy party of Nazis, speculating to himself how much gas it would take to murder the gathering. Professional to the end, he concludes that the ceiling is too high.

The Zone of Interest opens with the Höss family enjoying a swimming party in the Polish countryside and driving back to their idyllic villa next to the death camp. Hedwig is very proud of her dream house, garden and luxurious lifestyle, augmented by fur coats, dresses, cosmetics and cash stolen from the murdered Jews of the gas chambers. “They call me the Queen of Auschwitz,” she boasts to her visiting mother.

This is not Schindler’s List: there is no empathy, little emotion and no redemptive arch. The fate of the victims is not shown directly. The chimneys expel fire, smoke and ash. The shunting of railway rolling stock, cries of distress and gunshots are heard. The Höss family sunbathed to the muffled industrial sound of mass murder.

This is a film by the director Jonathan Glazer, based on a book by Martin Amis. The Zone of Interest is Glazer’s first film in 10 years and only his fourth. His previous films, Sexy Beast (2000), Birth (2004) and Under the Skin (2013) all received critical acclaim, with memorable characters such as Ben Kingsley’s psychotic gangster in Sexy Beast. His latest is more restrained both in its look and performance.

The Höss family sunbathed to the muffled industrial sound of mass murder

It is a strong film with subtle, nuanced projections by the two principal actors, Christian Friedel and Sandra Huller – the latter’s performance as the venal grasping Hedwig particularly effective.

TZOINot every occupant of the villa has Hedwig’s ability to suspend reality. Hedwig’s mother Linna (Imogen Kogge) comes for a visit and is so horrified that she leaves suddenly without warning. A young Polish girl leaves food for the starving prisoners at night. The Höss children play with toy soldiers, a throw of dice coincides with heavy gunfire and the youngest vows never to play with dice again. The two younger children go swimming in the River Sola and are covered in dumped crematoria ash.

The film brilliantly shows that the Holocaust happened in plain sight, with many people choosing not to see.

In real life, the fate of this power couple differed. Ever the survivor, Hedwig, remarried, moved to America, and died in 1989 in Washington DC aged 81. Rudolph, sentenced to death, predeceased her by 42 years, hung on gallows close to their dream house at Auschwitz. In his method of death, he obtained further notoriety by being the last person to be publicly executed in Poland. 

Lord Pickles is a Conservative peer

The Zone of Interest
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Venue: General cinema release from 2 February

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