Haunting Holocaust film “The Zone of Interest” is gaining momentum at the Oscars

TORONTO – Noah Morse, the 26-year-old director, was coming off a full-day volunteer shift at the Telluride Film Festival in early September when he decided he needed to see the 10 p.m. screening of Jonathan Glazer’s “Zone of Interest.” Which won’t leave until midnight.

His friends tried to warn him about this. The film, which is entirely in German, contains long, stagnant shots that would put one to sleep. It’s also a Holocaust film that focuses on the family of Nazi leader Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel from Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” with Sandra Höller, the acclaimed star of Toni Erdmann’s 2016 film) as they live in a house. Which abuts the Auschwitz wall – not exactly the people you want to spend nearly two hours with before bed.

But Morse, who is Jewish, had heard enough about the film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May and was having its North American premiere that night in Colorado, to know he was intrigued. Plus, he loved Glazer’s previous films, like 2000’s “Sexy Beast” and 2013’s “Under the Skin,” starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien who drives around Scotland seducing and preying on men. This was the director’s first film in 10 years, and it felt like an absolutely stunning departure. (Glazer is Jewish and grew up in London.)

“I wouldn’t classify it as slow cinema in any way,” Morse said. “I was completely locked down.”

For days afterward, he couldn’t stop talking about it with anyone he met. Some people found it thoughtful and innovative. Others, especially Jews, felt insulted, frustrated, and bored by it. “I think the movie achieves the same thing that people criticize it for, which is to portray the banality of this man’s lifestyle and the banality of evil,” Morse said. “And people didn’t like that. People don’t like seeing a Nazi having a pool party and having dinner with his kids and having a pillow talk with his wife, you know?”

Glazer’s film, which will be released on December 8, is currently on one of the most notable winning streaks for any film this year. With Hollywood upended by dual strikes by the writers’ and actors’ unions, the stage has been set for such tough fees to attract sustained attention.

By my calculations, it traces back to an incredible – and incredibly rude – press conference I witnessed at Cannes four months ago, where a coterie of international journalists continued to hound the festival’s jury members with one question: Why didn’t they give? Glazer Palme d’Or?

“Zone” won the grand prize, or runner-up prize, while the Palme went to French director Justine Triet’s dramatic courtroom thriller, “Anatomy of a Fall,” making her the second single woman to win the grand prize.

Now the fate of the two films seems intertwined. Both screened at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals in early September, and will be at the New York Film Festival in early October. Critics believe both stand a chance of being the rare international features that could break through as Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, and both star Holler, who was able to be on the ground because she is not a member of the Screen Actors Guild.

However, Treat’s film has the easier path, as 59 percent of it is in French, according to its distributor, the rest is mostly in English, and is simply easier for many Academy members to watch. (If “Zone” has an advantage, it will be produced and distributed by A24, the people behind Everything Everywhere at Once.)

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Which makes the excitement around “the area” even more interesting. As a Jewish person in Europe, Glazer said during a question-and-answer session in Toronto, he has studied and thought about the Holocaust most of his life. But his journey to making “The Zone” began when he and producer James Wilson optioned Martin Amis’s 2014 novel of the same name, which centers on a fictional Nazi officer inspired by Höss, the longest-serving commandant at Auschwitz. However, when he and his team began researching, they quickly decided to focus on the real Hus, who was tried at Nuremberg.

The film’s researchers spent 10 years searching the extensive archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Poland for any mention of the Hosys. Most of the film’s dialogue is taken from actual texts, including a shocking argument between Rudolf and his wife Hedwig, which reveals what Wilson calls the “atomic splitter of the idea” that inspired Glazer: that someone might think of Auschwitz as an “atomic splitter of the idea” and a dream home. “

Glazer originally wanted to film in Hoss’ real house, but they couldn’t because someone was living there. Eventually, they found another abandoned house that was a mirror image of Höss’ house, just a hundred meters away, but with the same amazing geography, against the Auschwitz wall. Production designer Chris Oddie essentially rebuilt the house and recreated Hedwig’s lush garden, where they had family gatherings while the smoke of the crematorium billowed even further.

The idea of ​​anyone living there was so unbelievable to Telluride audience member Kevin Bhairavi, a 28-year-old software developer and Wikipedia editor, that he looked it up immediately after leaving the theater.

“I thought: There’s no way his house could be literally next to the camp. That must have been a shock, but then I looked up and found him there, with a giant wall separating them from the burning bodies just a few feet away.” Then I also looked at street maps via Google “And there was someone’s car in the driveway now, like it was a regular house.”

From the beginning, Glazer knew he wanted to make something unlike any other film about the Holocaust. “From everything, from lessons at school to Schindler’s List, there is a kind of understanding of the images and I certainly don’t want to repeat that,” he said.

Instead, he wanted the film to seem anthropological and unsentimental, as if the audience had caught a slice of the family life of SS officers, and could use this time to reflect on the detachment and indifference to violence, evident only through the glowing red sky. Billowing smoke, and a chilling soundscape of screaming and beating. To achieve this, Glazer shot with ten cameras at once, which Polish cinematographer Lukács Zal planted throughout the house and garden. During filming, Glazer and the crew hid in the basement.

“I didn’t want to empower them or glamorize them or glamorize them, which is very easy to do just because that’s the bloodstream of cinema,” Glazer said. “We saw it like Big Brother in a Nazi house… We really wanted to watch from an almost neutral point of view, to record a critical distance so we could see not how they think, but how they act.”

The film begins with the Hösses and their five children enjoying a sunny day by the river. Bhairavi notices the SS license plate on their car right away, but less attentive viewers may not find out until Rudolf starts mentioning Hitler as his boss in casual conversation. What struck Morse most was how different the film’s depiction of the Nazis was from his Holocaust education, which usually depicted them as innately evil or German citizens chosen to join the Nazis out of fear or blind belief.

But Glazer is more interested in Nazism as a mercenary act. “They do it because it’s their job,” Morse said. “It’s a career path for them, and the people who are at the top of this profession are also the creators of machine death. This is a movie about (how) anyone can be evil.”

Glazer said he does not comment on current politics, but the film’s importance has grown over the 10 years it took to make it. “One of the things that seemed impossible to understand when we started was how an entire society could abdicate its moral responsibility,” he said. “And I think over the last few years, it’s become very clear to me how that’s possible.”

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