Jonathan Glazer’sZone of Interest seems stately at first, even stolid, and a bit too restrained to raise real questions. Once it’s over we realise that its discretion is part of a careful, risky plan. ‘Based on the novel by Martin Amis’, as a credit line says, the film converts a cruel virtuoso performance of literary voices into a sort of belated act of espionage. Amis’s fictional Paul Doll becomes history’s Rudolph Höss, and a film crew drops in on the German camp commandant and his family as they go about their daily lives. We see how ordinary it is, or how ordinary it would be if it weren’t for the noises coming from the camp next door to their lovely house.

The film opens in a pastoral mode. Trees, river, nature, calm. The family and its servants have been on a swimming trip and are about to pack up and go home. Höss (played by Christian Friedel) stares philosophically across the water, as he will do later when he and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), have a domestic crisis. The next day begins with a celebration: Höss’s birthday. He gets a long kayak as a present, and playfully puts his youngest child in it. Breakfast includes a cake the size of a small mountain. Then Höss goes off to work, down the road on his beloved horse. Later he returns with some civilian visitors and has a meeting in his office at home. The idyllic mood becomes a bit cloudy here because the meeting concerns the purchase of new ovens for the camp. Still, there is a brutal comedy, an echo of Amis’s tone, in the earnestness with which one of the men explains the way these ovens work, how economical they are compared with the old ones. It is really creepy, though, when he talks about the ovens’ ‘load’ without indicating what that load consists of in this context.

It’s not that the locals are in denial about what is going on in the camp, and this is where Glazer’s restraint begins to work well. Everyone seems to have incorporated the horrors as real but ignorable aspects of regular existence. A wonderful scene shows a man pushing a wheelbarrow along a path beside the wall of the camp. He is on his way to the Höss house to deliver a pile of clothes taken from the prisoners – a perk for Hedwig and her friends. They make their choices, and Hedwig is happy with a far too large fur coat. Later in the film, an angry Hedwig reminds a negligent servant that she could have her reduced to ashes at any time with a simple word to Höss. Her anger is not just about the servant. It’s also an indirect reaction to Hedwig’s mother’s sudden, unannounced departure. She too knows about the camp and has been happy during her visit. But the flames in the air, visible at night from her bedroom window, were too much for her. To borrow a line from Geoffrey Hill, it’s not always easy to be ‘too near the ancient troughs of blood’.

The central action of the film involves not the ovens, or Höss’s later promotion to commandant of commandants, but the possibility that Hedwig may have to leave the house (and garden and greenhouse) she loves so much. This is when we see Höss staring across the river again. His promotion requires the family to leave Poland and move to Oranienburg, near Berlin. It takes a week before he can bring himself to tell Hedwig this news, and her response is as he feared. He marches off from the house to the river’s edge; she follows him. He won’t look at her. She insists that this place, their house, is everything they wanted, their personal creation of Lebensraum. She doesn’t see any irony in borrowing the term from Hitler. Then she says she won’t leave, that she and he can remain partners at a distance, as indeed they do, a sort of team rather than a marriage. And if we missed what is happening on our first viewing of the film (as I did), we can hardly miss it on the second. Höss and Hedwig not only tolerate Auschwitz. It fails to touch their happiness in any way.

This is perhaps where we need to start thinking about the soundtrack, which includes some extraordinary non-music by Mica Levi. The film does open visually with the pastoral scene – but only after a six-minute period where it seems unlikely to begin at all. We looked at a black screen, listened to heavy, ghostly, synthesised sound with no sense of voices or instruments in it. As time went by, I wondered if this was a technical glitch of some kind, having experienced such events more than once in the same cinema. There is a similar effect at the end of the film, but it lasts only three minutes, and is humanised by shouts and other aural details. Several reviewers have shrewdly suggested that these sound sessions evoke precisely the horrors Glazer has decided not to show on screen, but then that reminder might be too emphatic and too distant from the visible story. We could think that Glazer and Levi want to situate us, before and after the narrative action, in a place where we are thoroughly lost.

Both Amis and Glazer, very wisely, choose not to engage with the historical Höss’s account of all this. He was tried at Nuremberg and executed (symbolically and for real) at Auschwitz in 1947. He was persuaded to write a memoir in prison, in which he declares that ‘as far as my philosophy of life is concerned, I am still a National Socialist.’ He sees now, though, that the leaders of his country ‘acted wrongly’, even if their only error, it seems, is to have lost the war. An apparent statement of contrition turns into a persevering commitment to Nazi mythology. ‘Today I realise that the extermination of the Jews was wrong, absolutely wrong.’ This sounds worthy enough, but then Höss continues: ‘It was exactly because of this mass extermination that Germany earned itself the hatred of the entire world. The cause of antisemitism was not served by this act at all, in fact, just the opposite. The Jews have come much closer to their goal.’ The cause of antisemitism. Not a vicious prejudice, but a desirable, thwarted project.

Glazer does give Höss his moment of hesitation about these matters. The move, however sentimental or fictional it may be, is very well co-ordinated. After taking on a new commission involving thousands of Hungarian Jews, which will allow him to return to Auschwitz and Hedwig, Höss shows proper soldierly obedience to all the right people. Then he attends a party in Oranienburg or somewhere nearby, and every shot, from room to room, shows how lonely he is, how little he belongs in this fashionable crowd. On the telephone he tells Hedwig that he keeps thinking about how he would go about gassing all of them. He leaves his office in a vast, empty building, designed in the late 19th-century Prussian architectural style, and walks down what seem to be endless sets of broad stairs. At the turn of two of them he stops to retch, as if to throw up his disgust at everything that has happened and is happening. But he can’t. He just retches. The implication, to butcher Pascal a little, is that the stomach has its reasons that reason can’t afford to recognise. Höss continues downwards, and the film ends. Sorry: the music begins. This is wonderful stuff if we can set aside the thought that Höss never didn’t know exactly what was happening, and probably felt it was good for his health. Not everyone has a psychology.

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