Very freely working from Martin Amis’s 2014 novel of the same name, Glazer’s film takes a rigorously withholding and formalized approach to its narrative. “The Zone of Interest” unfolds in shots as austere and hermetic as anything in the films of Roy Andersson. Jews at the death camp are never seen, and while their attempted extermination is not a secret to the characters, it is kept in the background. The sights and sounds of the death camp appear in the corners of the frame or are heard as ambient noise. Is it possible for people to dissociate on this scale—for children to play with toys, for women to socialize in a garden, for a husband to compliment his wife’s perfume (“it’s French,” she replies)—while more than one million people are murdered in their backyard?
For the real Hösses, it must have been, and “The Zone of Interest” tries to find a way to capture that cognitive dissonance. But what is fundamentally flawed—and noxious—about Glazer’s strategy is that it conflates the bubble he has constructed for viewers with the bubble he imagines his characters constructed for themselves.
As the director, Glazer gets to choose exactly how prominent a chimney will be in a particular composition, or when a line of black smoke will cross the horizon. He can raise or lower the volume on the sounds of gunfire, dogs, and trains. He can deploy glimpses of the camp for shock value, as when Hedwig runs after her husband, strolling by the camp’s concrete, barb-wired wall as casually as if it were a neighbor’s hedge. He can reveal information—and what the Hösses know—on his own schedule, and even break his own rules. (There are brief stretches when the film shifts to X-ray vision, and at one point a poem by the Auschwitz survivor Joseph Wulf is spelled out in text onscreen.)
“The Zone of Interest” doesn’t actually tell its story from the perspective of Nazis who have walled off reality (assuming they even tried to do so). It simply presents a perspective that has been ruthlessly delimited for effect. Technically, “The Zone of Interest” is impeccable, and there is no question that is ambitious and experimental; expect it to be one of the most divisive and debated movies this year. And expect it to be considered, frankly, with greater time, and closer viewings, than the frenzied atmosphere of Cannes allows. But where some of my colleagues have seen a director in total control of his material, I saw a movie that was less interested in psychology than in its own virtuosity, and in its ability to troll the audience with forbidden images.