The Zone of Interest is a Mirror for Our Times

I hesitate to call Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest a horror film. Granted, with films like Under the Skin Glazer is no stranger to the genre--and it is terrifying. But the banality of that horror--and the message that we are all capable of it--give the film an intimacy beyond even the most visceral gore film.

"Intimacy" really is the word. The film follows Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel) as he takes his kids fishing, talks about vacation plans with his wife, and works--as the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The family live right next to the camp, but they, and we, don't see any of the prisoners. As the kids are playing or Mrs. Hoss is gossiping with her friends we hear gunshots sometimes--a sterile pop!--or distant screaming. Even when Rudolf goes into the camp, the camera trains on his face and we're not face-to-face with the people he's torturing and killing. We just hear their screams.

Our distance from the prisoners is the same as the Hosses'. We literally don't see them, and they're easy to ignore. The film forces us to dehumanize the Jewish people while being up close and personal with literal Nazis.

And what separates us from this high-ranking Nazi officer and his family? Nothing.

Some of the scenes of Rudolf interacting with his family reminded me of the killer in George Sluizer's The Vanishing, but I soon realized the comparison was unfair. The guy from The Vanishing is a self-diagnosed psychopath who seems normal on the surface, but he's playing several roles and will tell you how different he feels to other people. Rudolf and his family, by contrast, are perfectly average people. You don't need to be special to do evil.

That is my core takeaway from The Zone of Interest--dehumanization is easier than we think. As Jonathan Glazer himself said in his acceptance speech for the Oscar for Best International Picture, "All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present. Not to say 'Look what they did then,' rather 'Look what we do now.'" Evil is something we are all capable of, not just broken people who are somehow spectacularly different from us. (Speaking of "dehumanization.") If we want the world to be a better place, we must make good choices every day--including to examine parts of ourselves we don't want to see.