The Zone of Interest: Jonathan Glazer's horrifyingly ordinary Auschwitz tale chills Cannes

The film is competing for the Palme d'Or top prize at this year's film festival

A still from Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest. Photo: A24
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The awful reality of Auschwitz seen from the other side of the wall, where the flowers grow and children play, is captured in Jonathan Glazer's long-awaited film, The Zone of Interest.

Its premiere took place on Friday at Cannes Film Festival.

The director's fourth film focuses on the family of Rudolf Hoss, the longest-serving commandant of the Auschwitz camp who lived a stone's throw away.

While the screams and gunshots are audible from their beautiful garden, the family carries on with their life as though nothing were amiss.

The horror of Auschwitz "is just bearing down on every pixel of every shot, in sound and how we interpret that sound ... It affects everything but them", Glazer says of the film.

Glazer, who is Jewish, wanted to explore how it was possible to live with the horror on their doorstep.

"Would it be possible to sleep? Could you sleep? What happens if you close the curtains and you wear earplugs, could you do that?

"Everything had to be very carefully calibrated to feel that it was always there, this ever-present, monstrous machinery," he said.

The disturbing film is all the more uncomfortable to watch as it is shot in a realist style, with natural lighting and none of the frills or glossy aesthetic typical to a period drama.

A decade in the making

The Zone of Interest arrives at Cannes a decade after the release of Glazer's last film, the highly acclaimed dystopian sci-fi Under the Skin starring Scarlett Johansson.

His first two features were Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004) – Glazer is known for taking his time between each shoot.

"I cogitate a lot. I think a lot about what I'm going to make, good or bad.

"This particular subject obviously is a vast, profound topic and deeply sensitive for many reasons and I couldn't just approach it casually."

A novel of the same title by Martin Amis was one catalyst for bringing him to this project.

It provided "a key that unlocked some space for me which was to do with the enormous discomfort of being in the room with the perpetrator, and not the perpetrator as we have seen typically in recreation".

Glazer then spent two years reading other books and accounts on the subject before beginning to map out the film with his collaborators.

'Familiar' banality

The banality of the daily lives lived so close to the death camp became his primary focus, and viewing Hoss's family not as monsters, but as terrifyingly ordinary.

"The things that drive these people are familiar. Nice house, nice garden, healthy kids ... clean air" were things common to us all, he said.

"How like them are we? How terrifying it would be to acknowledge. What is it that we're so frightened of understanding?"

Who is Jonathan Glazer?

With only a handful of films in more than two decades, the British director is one of the more enigmatic filmmakers at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

London-born Glazer, 58, studied theatre at university and first broke through with stage work, adverts and music videos, before turning to film in 2000.

His commercials include memorable ones for Guinness, Stella Artois and Levi’s, while among his music clips are several for Radiohead and Jamiroquai's Virtual Insanity which won the MTV video of the year award in 1997.

Glazer caused an immediate sensation with his first film Sexy Beast, the critically acclaimed gangster movie starring Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley, who received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role.

Radically switching genres, as he has done with each feature, Glazer turned next to Birth, an eerie tale about a woman played by Nicole Kidman who falls in love with a 10-year-old boy.

It was less well received after its ghostly plot caused some scepticism over the reveal that the child is a reincarnation of Kidman's husband.

In 2013 came Under the Skin, adapted from a novel by Michel Faber. The mysterious sci-fi set in a remote coastal Scottish town drew a standout performance from Scarlett Johanssen.

In the film she plays an alien in human form who roams the beaches and streets, picking up random men and luring them to an abandoned house.

Mixing highly stylised abstract scenes with gritty Glasgow realism, Glazer's film was both baffling and mesmerising, and left fans wanting more.

Glazer's The Zone of Interest is one of 21 movies in competition for the top prize Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, with prizes to be announced May 27.

Updated: May 20, 2023, 6:14 AM