"Zone of Interest" - how do you show the horrors of war without showing war?

There are many worthy films on the subject of World War II and the Holocaust. For example, the TV series "Small Light" was recently released, and I reviewed it. And, of course, the films and TV series about Auschwitz and Auschwitz number in the hundreds, if not thousands.

But "Zone of Interest" is a whole new reading of this tragic subject. The film follows the family of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess, who lives behind a wall from the horrifying death camp. There are 5 children in the family, and Rudolf's wife Hedwig tries very hard to make both the house and the garden around it as cosy as possible. While the crematorium next door is in constant operation, the Höss family lives an ordinary but joyful life, completely indifferent to the human suffering taking place on the other side of the concrete wall.
There is no antagonist in this film: in the absence of battles in Germany or Jews to fight back, the only thing standing in the way of the protagonists is their own lack of empathy.
In "Zone of Interest" we don't see a single prisoner or battle scene, but this film perfectly captures the chilling horror of fascism. The sound design here is absolutely stunning, you have to listen and watch carefully as the main action here takes place as a significant background event.

Most scenes take place without music, but the sounds of what is happening in the neighbouring camp are audible. The camera never shows the inside of Auschwitz, but the sounds - the engines of the crematoria, the rumble of machine guns, the barking of dogs - can be heard everywhere.

In the background one can often see the chimneys of the crematoria, from which smoke and flames burst out. Many times trains carrying Jews to the camp can be heard or seen in the background.

And you have to watch the film very carefully, otherwise there is a great chance to miss something and not understand it.
In this article, I just want to list those moments, scenes and techniques that you may have missed and therefore are wondering about, for example, the ending of the film.
Rudolf Hoess was not just the commandant of Auschwitz, he was one of the main organisers of the mass extermination of Jews in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. It is unclear what their lives were like before Rudolf became commandant of Auschwitz, the family clearly did not live in affluence. Hedwig's mother even mentions that she once cleaned the flat of a wealthy Jewish woman, and wonders if that woman is now in the camp.

"Zone of Interest" was the name given to the territory that became the Auschwitz death camp during construction.

Rudolf is obsessed with his career and his wife Hedwig with her social status, neither of them thinking about the fact that thousands of Jews were shot and burned alive as a result of their actions. Rudolf and Hedwig sleep in separate beds and have no intimate contact throughout the film, making their relationship more like that of business partners than a happily married couple.

Hedwig somehow manages to appear as miserable as her husband. Her daily routine is to make her house look as much like a palace as possible. She is very cruel to the hired servants and ransacks the room where all the clothes and personal belongings confiscated from the Jews are kept, which she talks about very lightly. Hedwig and her friends refer to the clothes confiscated from the Jewish concentration camp prisoners as having arrived "from Canada" - referring to the warehouse Canada, so named for being considered a land of plenty.
Hedwig's mother comes to visit them, and although she seems to have no qualms about Nazi ideology, she is so horrified by the sights, sounds and smells of a working crematorium that she leaves in the middle of the night - while even the young children are so used to it that they have no problem sleeping and playing outside peacefully. Her mother leaves only a note, and the next morning Hedwig burns it, then scolds one of the maids severely for putting two plates instead of one for breakfast.

The noise and activities of the concentration camp are reflected in the games and children's upbringing: The eldest son stays up nights to examine gold teeth extracted from Jewish prisoners and later locks his brother in a greenhouse, playfully making sounds similar to releasing gas; the youngest son bangs a drum to imitate gunshots and later pretends to be an officer scolding a prisoner; one of the daughters often sleepwalks and disturbs Rudolf; the youngest child cries constantly, rarely being at rest.
Rudolf realises that human remains are being dumped into the river in which he and the children are bathing - and then it begins to rain, soaking the children with sediment contaminated by the work at Auschwitz. The adults have to wash them from the ashy rain, and the housekeeper is surprised at the unprecedented amount of human ashes left in the bathtub.

Rudolph's rape of one of the prisoners is shown very discreetly: she takes off her shoes and sits opposite him with an expressionless face. He is then shown washing his genitals. He also sends a message to the other concentration camp staff to make sure that while they are "picking lilacs" that they do not "bleed" - one of the many types of sexual violence implied in the film.

Rudolf is seen stealing American and British currency from his fellow prisoners. If he really believed in the ultimate victory of the Nazis, why on earth would he keep Allied money?
Viewers repeatedly see scenes on night vision camera with a local girl who sneaks past guards to hide food for the prisoners and then discovers sheet music written by one of them. She brings them home and plays them on the piano, after which she never appears on screen again. The film's script states that her name is Alexandra. She also hides apples for Jewish prisoners. Later in the film, we hear how two prisoners were executed because of a fight over an apple. The subtext is unsettling.

The meaning of the ending

The end of the film takes us to the present day, where various caretakers maintain Auschwitz, now preserved as a museum, not a museum of Nazism, but a museum of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

In real life, Rudolf Hoess was hanged after the Nuremberg trials. Although nothing in the ending contradicts this, he is shown with blood from his mouth, an incurable death cough and stress-induced vomiting, suggesting that he developed some kind of disease or allergic reaction to the camp's pollutants, and the film cuts to black. Rudolf's bout of nausea at the end of the film is a reference to the ending of the documentary The Act of Killing, in which a retired genocidal soldier is hit by a wave of vomiting when he experiences remorse.

It's unclear if the museum was Rudolph's vision or if the film makers just sort of transported us into the future, but what is certain is that Rudolph's descent into darkness is symbolism, a hint of where the man is actually headed - into darkness.
For the scenes in Hoess's house, it was decided to eschew traditional filming by placing cameras on every inch of the house to follow the actors' every move, while Jonathan Glazer and crew members watched from a nearby trailer. This was done to convey the discomfort and anxiety that would prevail in the film.

Because of the specificity of Jonathan Glazer's vision, the extensive research he did, and the film's explicitly non-commercial basis, Zone of Interest took ten years to make.