A Disturbing Vision On The Edge Of The Abyss

in Festival International du Film, Cannes 2023

by Olivier Bachelard

In the end, it was Jonathan Glazer’s disturbing adaptation of Martin Amis’ novel The Zone of Interest (published in 2014) that caught the attention of the FIPRESCI jury during this 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Presented in competition and awarded with the Grand Jury Prize, The Zone of Interest, by focusing on the day-to-day concerns of the family of the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, manages to remind everyone how easy it is to be insensitive and gradually forget the horror that takes place in our vicinity or at our frontiers, but remains invisible to our eyes.

The film’s impressive use of sound and music provides a constant contrast, from the infernal background roar of the invisible ovens next door, to the peaceful appearance of a flower-filled garden along a wall above which the tops of some barracks and some chimneys can be seen from time to time, to noisy children’s games around a swimming pool to which, at night, a few horrifying screams seem to respond, muffled by the ambient noise, while smoke appears in the distance. Jonathan Glazer uses a number of long shots with only a red or black screen, together with a pervasive sound reminiscent of the hell that is unfolding next door, in order to confront the viewer with his own propensity to forget.

Following the gesticulations of Sandra Hüller as the housewife, preoccupied with supplies, a flattering tour of her property or various daily tasks; showing the actions of her husband, an implacable engineer of the Final Solution (he explains with mechanical coldness the principle of a circular crematorium, with maps that create a clinical distance from its terrible use), quickly obsessed by the menace of a transfer that would take his family away from this supposed “paradise”; The author succeeds in focusing the viewer’s attention on the issues specific to these characters, making them forget those of the invisible souls on the other side of the wall, as gradually as that dull background noise becomes less annoying to the ear.

Embodying the duty to remember, but also indifference to other tragedies taking place on our doorstep, it draws a line between past and present, further reinforced by the use of contemporary dialogue, not easily attributable to the middle of the last century. If Jonathan Glazer was in the habit of losing us, blurring our temporal reference points in Birth, where Nicole Kidman met a child who seemed to incorporate the memories of her dead husband, or spatial reference points in the disturbing Under the Skin, with Scarlett Johansson as a woman attracting men into a room that was literally ingesting them. In this case, his work is even more disturbing, with the only characters who seem to question the situation at times being the youngest children, who suddenly stop what they are doing, only a second before being snatched by an adult back into their own idyllic parallel world.

The out of focus title at the beginning, which gradually fades into black, is undoubtedly also symbolic of the darkness of the human being, capable of the worst, as well as the most profound indifference. This indifference is embodied in the military hierarchy, but is also transmitted to the family, in the mother’s reactions and in the actions of teenagers who have already been recruited and act somewhat sadistically. On this subject, one is inevitably reminded of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, 2009), another Palme d’Or winner, dealing with the devious rise of Nazism. Extensible perhaps to a part of Europe or Europeans who watch the Syrian or Ukrainian conflicts with indifference, once the flood of information has settled into a kind of routine, The Zone of Interest today resounds like a warning, rumbling and roaring, which penetrates you right up to its final minutes, creating an unease that will not let you go in the days that follow.

Olivier Bachelard
Edited by Rita Di Santo