Jonathan Glazer and the Sound of the Holocaust: “With ‘The Zone of Interest,’ I Wanted to Show That We Are the Executioners”

Interview with Jonathan Glazer, the director of 'The Zone of Interest,' the most bizarre, original, and chilling representation of the Holocaust to date

Interview with the director of The Zone of Interest, the most bizarre, original, and chilling representation of the Holocaust to date

by Laura Pérez

Jonathan Glazer, the visionary behind Under the Skin—arguably the strangest sci-fi film in recent memory—has spent a decade crafting his latest feature, The Zone of Interest. An adaptation of Martin Amis’ novel of the same name, it may just be the most bizarre, original, and bone-chilling depiction of the Holocaust ever made. We delve into this hypnotic piece with him.

Jonathan Glazer (London, 1965) has chosen the road less traveled: to convey the horror of Auschwitz without showing the viewer any of the atrocities. But they are heard. And this auditory experience proves more harrowing than the traditional narrative of Jewish corpses laid before our eyes. The British filmmaker places his protagonist, a Nazi officer, and his family in a blissful home adjacent to the extermination camp. Every second, the sounds beyond the wall—gunshots, furnace boilers, the hissing of gas chambers—never cease.

“We’ve seen archival footage of atrocities in schools, cinemas, documentaries, so most people recognize the imagery’s power. That’s why I trusted the audience to associate the sound with the images, without needing to see them. The horror is out of sight but not out of mind.” Indeed, The Zone of Interest begins with a prolonged black screen enveloped in noise. “There are two films: the one you see and the one you hear. I was aiming for a kind of permanent alarm clock or dripping tap, which is quite cacophonous and emotionally chaotic. I’m aware of the frustration the film’s start may cause, but I wanted to emphasize that sound comes first.” His work with artists like Radiohead, Massive Attack, and Nick Cave might have influenced his storytelling style.

Becoming the Executioners

This conversation took place during the San Sebastián Film Festival, with Glazer dressed in jeans and a black shirt, silver rings, and a Star of David around his neck. “We all see the state the world is in, and I didn’t want to create a museum piece that makes us feel safe from something that happened in the past. It all applies to the present, and I hope viewers see themselves on screen and recognize how similar we are to the perpetrators. I know it’s scary to recognize oneself there, and it’ll take time for people to do it, trying to maintain a distance before they do, but we must see ourselves in those authors. We have to.”

 Jonathan Glazer, the director of 'The Zone of Interest'
Jonathan Glazer, the director of ‘The Zone of Interest’

The director of Under the Skin (2013) believes this is his most complex film to date, largely due to his decision to shoot on location near Auschwitz (Poland). There, they built the house and garden that served as the set. Each scene was shot with multiple cameras, creating a disconcerting excess of angles. But the real challenge was emotional. “We were right there, touching that sand, breathing that air, filming alongside historians working at the camp. It was an intensely profound experience. I believe I made the right decision, but it was tough.”

Even one of the film’s stories, about a girl who secretly feeds prisoners at night, is true. “I met this woman, now 90 years old. At 12, she was part of the Resistance, like many children, less likely to be suspected. The house, the bicycle, even the dress the actress wears are hers.” The director captures these images with a thermodynamic camera, creating an eerily strange subplot. “We’re supposed to be in 1940, in the dark, in the middle of a field. I didn’t want to use Hollywood-style lighting in this context, so this was the only way to film.”

Martin Amis’ novel, published in 2015, remains a distant reference in Glazer’s adapted screenplay. “The book gave me the courage to portray the executioners as utterly normal people. They’re terrifyingly common, boring, our neighbors, us, driven by that mundane impulse to aspire to a comfortable life, to bourgeoisify, and that fascinated me.” Coincidentally, Amis passed away on the day the film was presented at the Cannes Festival, but Glazer had shown it to him before.

Depicting the Holocaust in Film

The lead couple is played by Christian Friedel (The White Ribbon) and Sandra Hüller (Anatomy of a Fall), as a mother who tends to her home and organizes teas mere meters from the gas chambers. “I’ve had many conversations with Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz Museum. He’s a brilliant man with a fabulous speech on the danger of human passivity and how it’s a choice. English philosopher Jacqueline Rose, in her book Women in Dark Times, talks about the reconciliation process in South Africa and mentions a letter where a woman apologizes. When asked about her crime, she responds: ‘For doing nothing.’ “

It took years, readings, and reflections for the author of Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004) to gain the confidence to approach the Shoah with a unique voice. “I am extremely sensitive to the ethics of representing the Holocaust. There are excellent films by fantastic directors that have done it a certain way, with the best intentions. They elicit pity for the victims, make you identify with them. But they place you in a safe spot, away from the possibility of becoming one of the executioners. And that’s one of the reasons I made this film, to eliminate that distance and show that those executioners are us.”

Fotogramas, January 19, 2024



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