The Zone of Interest

The Zone of Interest ★★★★★

Evil planted in the domestic drape of banality, keeping those who are well-positioned cocooned from the unspeakable horrors that scream just beyond the Auschwitz garden wall. The horror is never seen, only heard, which means that the film’s exceedingly mundane images create meaning beyond visuals that eke towards a very eerie, very surreal auditory hellscape. Only master composer Mica Levi could pull this off, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Simultaneously entrancing and unsettling, it feels like you’re watching Little House on the Prairie but listening to Come and See. The cognitive dissonance between image and sound is profound, creating what might be the most quietly unhinged Holocaust film ever made. 

Been thinking a lot lately about the “banality of evil”—the idea that profound evil doesn’t have to look obvious or unambiguous, but in many instances can look as clean cut and unassuming as Norman Bates. This brand of evil mingles with mediocrity to the point of looking like a home cooked meal, or a bedtime story, or a well-pampered garden. By themselves these images are blithely innocuous, but when tethered to the memory of historical Holocaust these images create a bracingly unnerving paradox from which we can’t escape. Which is to say, what appears like a happy, normal life of wanting the best for your family is also the site of historical atrocity and untold human misery. People thriving on one side means people dying on the other. Profound evil can coexist with deep normalization, pushing many towards a kind of compartmentalization that insulates them from the planet’s worst actors.

This unique and deeply disturbing worldview visualizes mass extermination as a 1940s Fortune 500 dream home. It’s alarming how ordinary fascism looks when seen from the perspective of those who are either too willing to ingratiate themselves to evil to sustain their can’t-be-disturbed lifestyle, or those who feel they must uphold prejudice to endorse patriotic allegiance to the party line. This is ultimately a horror film about deconstructed fascism that asks us to interrogate each image of comfort and privilege by imagining what it means for those dying beyond the wall. You see abundance and plentiful on one side—what does it mean for those beyond the wall? You see a yearning for ease and holiday on one side—what does it mean for those beyond the wall? You see laughter and playtime on one side—you get the point. Lastly, pay attention to how many doors exist in this film and who gets to pass through them. There’s always an escape hatch for the well-appointed, but for those beyond the wall there’s nothing but imprisonment. The ease at which fascism passes through the quotidian spaces of our lives wouldn’t be so scary if it weren’t so close to home, but as the final image suggests, walk down those darkened corridors long enough and soon the individual/country will lose itself in a pall of forgetfulness.

Watched at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival 

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