Jonathan Glazer’s latest film The Zone of Interest immediately drags you into its aura.

More than two minutes of black screen, accented by the stereo-panning synths of composer Mica Levi. The darkness encapsulates the space, tuning the audience into one frequency. It quite literally creates a zone.

Glazer’s film functions on this idea of zones, of physical zones and metaphysical ones. We follow Nazi commandant Rudolf Hoss and his family in their new home, situated right next to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The unremarkable acts of domestic stability in their household are cordoned off from the grotesque horrors beyond the wall.

These horrors are never visualised directly in the film, and Hoss and his family never receive moral judgement. The tone is flat, languid, measured. It’s another film based on the Holocaust to receive the label of ‘anti-Schindler’s List’, owing to its lack of pathos and emotional direction in contrast to Spielberg’s film. Yet The Zone of Interest is incredibly impactful, perhaps more so, speaking to the cruelty of the human spirit in difficult ways rarely seen in commercial cinema. The film communicates through its form, leaving few answers in its narrative and dialogue.

This conception of zones, of the different experiences of space, is reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, where the characters exist in a dreary crawling sepia tone, only to cross into the ‘Zone’ where the world is suddenly colourful, light, and transcendent.

The Herald: The 'Zone' in Andrei Tarkovsky's StalkerThe 'Zone' in Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (Image: Mosfilm)
Stalker’s zones are oblique and seemingly naturally occurring. In The Zone of Interest, the spaces are man-made, constructed with a clear purpose, and designed to be self-contained and isolated. Hoss and his family live banal and trite domestic lives, easily settling despite the looming walls of Auschwitz. Inside Auschwitz is a completely different existence, the type of space where the evil of mankind is redefined. The only suffering that seeps out from behind the wall is the sounds of pain and anguish embedded in the film’s sound design, background ambience as the Hoss family concerns themselves with the normal and every day. We’re challenged by the artificiality of what the film chooses to show.

Tarkovsky used the aesthetic language of cinema to illustrate the experience of moving between two different planes of existence. A similar use shows up here, such as when we see a young Polish girl venture outside to bury apples for starving prisoners to find. A thermal imaging camera captures the scene, making her appear like a ghost in purgatory, attempting to transition between planes.

Read more:

Derek McArthur: Sex in cinema – have we turned into Victorian puritans?

Glazer uses intelligent juxtaposition within the film’s form to exemplify spaces and their boundaries. The most striking and impactful juxtaposition is its final sequence. Hoss stares down the staircase of his Berlin office, pondering his legacy and mission. It then cuts to the present-day Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum before opening. Staff hoover and tidy up in front of a backdrop of thousands of shoes belonging to victims of the Holocaust. We then cut back to Hoss descending the staircase into darkness. The black screen returns full circle, requiring the film to shut off and pull the audience out of the experience.

It's incredibly well done, offering cascading thoughts on the unimaginable tragedy that unfolded in Auschwitz. The film has seen some criticism that it fails to convey the sheer gravity and horror of the Holocaust. It certainly doesn’t announce what it wants from the audience, a moral stance towards Hoss and the Nazis is not directly established, and there is nothing from the perspective of the victims. But the film’s form and how it examines the spaces that Hoss inhabits clearly mark out its morality. The film deals with an event that has produced a lot of reflection and soul-searching, and, intriguingly, The Zone of Interest is willing to take the approach of less is more.

Cinema does not have to be a vessel for emotion, a dog and pony show. A film can elicit emotion without directing one how to feel. Glazer’s film uses the viewer’s perception as its vessel, offering questions in a place where the answers might be more profound.

Read more:

Margaret Tait and a reckoning with Scottish film culture

The film is dry, clinical, obsessed with form. It’s not a treatise on the ideology of the Nazis but points to broader strokes, the gut depravity of humanity. Glazer has said as much, telling The Guardian: “You have to get to a point where you understand [the ideology] to some extent in order to be able to write it, but I was really interested in making a film that went underneath that to the primordial bottom of it all, which I felt was the thing in us that drives it all, the capacity for violence that we all have.”

The film's use of spaces, of bringing the viewer into a zone, expands greatly on this primordial drive for violence. It foregoes the history book answers of why the Holocaust occurred, delving universally into the wickedness of the human psyche. The film is far more enrichened from not laying out its rules and beliefs, by talking through its spaces than through exposition, and it does this while dealing with the biggest tragedy of the 20th century. That kind of bold filmmaking should be championed.