Director Jonathan Glazer’s horrifyingly ordinary Auschwitz tale chills Cannes

Jewish filmmaker’s long-awaited movie ‘The Zone of Interest’ depicts the family life of Nazi camp commander Rudolf Hoss, which proceeds as normal, just beyond the gas chambers

British director Jonathan Glazer arrives for the screening of his film 'The Zone of Interest' during the 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 19, 2023. (Loic Venance/AFP)
British director Jonathan Glazer arrives for the screening of his film 'The Zone of Interest' during the 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 19, 2023. (Loic Venance/AFP)

AFP — 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 new film, “The Zone of Interest,” which premiered Friday at Cannes.

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 told AFP.

The 58-year-old 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 its life as though nothing were amiss.

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?” he told AFP. “Everything had to be very carefully calibrated to feel that it was always there, this ever-present, monstrous machinery.”

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.

Rudolf Hess, the Kommandant of Auschwitz. (Public domain)

“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,” he said. “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.

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?”

Glazer’s film is one of 21 movies in competition for the top prize Palme d’Or at Cannes, running until May 27.

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