Saturday 20 May 2023

Cannes 2023 - The Zone of Interest by Jonathan Glazer


Jonathan Glazer has built one of the most interesting recent careers in so few films over the last decades, one that is has impressive as it is varied an unexpected. Indeed you never quite know where he will turn his focus next, starting off with Sexy Beast in 2000 and its story of British gangsters in Spain to the metaphysical musings of Birth in 2004 and the chilling science-fiction vérité of Under The Skin in 2013. He is in Cannes for the first time with the adaptation of The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis that had the potential to be very controversial given the subject.

The Zone of Interest is quite simply about the banality of evil. Following the life of a perfect German family as they go on picnic, enjoy their country house and the countryside while the father gets on with his job that takes him away from his family sometime and the mother tends to the family and the house... except that house is adjacent to Auschwitz where the father is a commandant. 

It is that juxtaposition that is the essence of the film and a metaphor for a whole nation being unable or unwilling to see the horror that was unleashing in front of them. Such a premise required a skilled director and thankfully Jonathan Glazer has the perfect touch for it. His depiction of family life feels wholesome but it does not fall into the trap of ever letting us forget what is happening. For a few short scenes away from this horror, while back home the family gets on with their lives despite the ever present background noise of the atrocities being committed right next to their house. While these scenes in the countryside and in the garden are filmed with an ever present warm light, he contrasts them with scenes inside the house filmed with a harshness of light, eschewing any kind of the usual period directing artifices. 

The sense of dread is cultivated by the chilling score by Mica Levy and the disturbing sound effects as well as a few arthouse flourishes throughout that gives the film the quality of a woken nightmare but one that is very real. Later on Jonathan Glazer allows himself a more conceptual, experimental direction (dare I say Kubrick-esque) without ever coming across as indulgent.

Sandra Hüller is chilling, at times utterly terrifying as someone who seems to accommodate herself too well of what is going on and using it to her advantage, while Christian Friedel plays his husband as if a middling bureaucrat in some boring job focused on advancing his career to take care of his family. Yet for all this banality, Jonathan Glazer films the awakening of a secondary character who is literally awaken in the middle of the night as we see her watch, just watch and through her eyes all the horror of this reality is laid bare.

The Zone of Interest is an important, disturbing masterpiece that continues the incredible run of the British director.

Review by Laurent de Alberty

Star rating: 

Official Selection, in Competition. 

The Zone of Interest. Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Starring Sandra Hüller, Christian Friedel...

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