‘The Zone of Interest’ Exposes How Easy It Is to Look Away

Any filmmaker trying to draw meaning from the Holocaust onscreen faces potential pitfalls. If you showcase individual human perseverance, as in Agnieszka Holland’s 1990 film “Europa Europa,” you risk trivialization; if you attempt to dramatize the inside of a concentration camp, as in Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film “Life Is Beautiful,” you risk exploitation; if you’re simply interested in preserving the testimony of survivors, you risk redundancy with what Claude Lanzmann accomplished in the 1985 film “Shoah.”

Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List” is a masterpiece that consciously navigates these risks, but it, too, has faced criticism for sentimentality and for centering the figure of a righteous gentile.

Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” a dark horse candidate for best picture at the Academy Awards on Sunday, avoids all of these traps and finds something new and profoundly unsettling to say about the Holocaust. Mr. Spielberg recently called it “the best Holocaust movie I’ve witnessed since my own.” The film also accomplishes something more relevant to the present, forcing viewers to confront difficult questions about our own proximity to atrocity, and succeeding as a bracing reminder of how art can alert and sensitize us to the historical moment we inhabit.

“Zone” is ostensibly about the genocide of European Jewry, but its focus is not on the Jewish victims, who remain almost entirely offscreen. Rather, Mr. Glazer exposes the perpetrators to the scrutiny of the audience’s gaze. “Zone” depicts the life of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, and his family at their handsome estate just outside the walls of the death camp.

We don’t see prisoners gunned down or stripped naked and marched to the gas chambers. What we do see — and thanks to a chilling and ingenious sound design, hear — are plumes of smoke rising above the incinerators, glimpsed through the window of a bedroom, and the distant rattle of gunfire on the other side of the wall as we tour the pristine garden that Rudolf’s wife, Hedwig, enjoys showing off to guests.

In one of the most disturbing scenes, we watch as a stream of dark ash overtakes the neighboring brook in which Rudolf and his children have gone for a dip. The father is horrified — not at the slaughter implied by this pollution, but at the possibility of his family’s contamination — and a frantic cleansing ensues.

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