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TIFF 2023 Review: The Zone of Interest – “Intensely horrifying”

Courtesy of TIFF

In 2013 I remember sitting down at what is now called Toronto Metropolitan University in order to watch a film called Under the Skin.  When it was done, I turned to the person sitting beside me, a complete stranger, and I remember we both had the same reaction of dislike, wondering what we had just watched.  I was vastly in the minority in my thinking, with scores sitting at a comfortable 84% on Rotten Tomatoes, and yet I still think about that movie often, how it made me feel, how unsettling it was.  Now, director Jonathan Glazer returns with his first feature film in nine years with the even more disturbing and horrific The Zone of Interest.  

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An adaptation from the 2014 Martin Amis novel of the same name, The Zone of Interest refers to what the Nazi SS called the 40 square kilometre area immediately surrounding the Auschwitz concentration camp.  It is here that Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), commandant of the camp, and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, also at the festival in Anatomy of a Fall) make a home for their family.  It’s a beautiful home surrounded by a lovely and abundant garden full of life.  Their children run free there, as does their unruly dog, a stark contrast to the people just over the shared garden wall who have had their freedom and belongings stripped from them, imprisoned in the most atrocious place, and murdered en mass.  

Glazer utilizes some similar techniques here from Under the Skin, especially when it comes to his use of sound as a storytelling mechanism.  Never meeting an unsettling sound he didn’t like, Glazer opens with this and a blank screen, just letting the audience squirm a bit, setting the scene for the discomfort that is about to last the entirety of the film’s 106 minutes.  Eventually, he relents, showing us the Höss family enjoying some time by an idyllic-looking lake before taking us to the house.

This is the home that Hedwig loves, where she has nurtured both her children and the land.  It’s a house where Rudolph lackadaisically talks about mass incinerators with his fellow military officers. It’s a house where Rudolph meticulously locks every door at night.  But that action can’t keep out the screams that linger in the air as they fall asleep, nor the sounds of gunfire, nor the sight of the flames coming from the crematoriums.   All of these sounds and visuals are horrifying, but what may be even more so is how desensitized the Höss family is to all of it.

Glazer seems determined in his work to truly examine what it means to be human.  In The Zone of Interest we see the absolute worst of humanity, yet it co-exists amongst the life of this family, which on the surface, could be any family.  It’s under the surface (perhaps under the skin?) that they differ in their denial and indifference.  With excellent performances from Friedel and Hüller this film is able to remain riveting through all its sinister and distressing entirety.

The Zone of Interest is powerful, disturbing, and visceral, at times making my stomach literally churn.     Not every technique works; Glazer chooses some photo negative/thermal imaging at points that don’t seem to fit, for instance.  However, the film remains intensely horrifying, even though it never depicts the violence behind the wall.  While possibly a respectful choice, it also allows the audience to hone in on the discomfort of those sounds, those screams that seem to harmonize with the Höss’ day-to-day life.

The Zone of Interest is essential viewing, yet it’s a movie I will never watch again.  There is no need.  It will stick with me for a lifetime.

The Zone of Interest had its Canadian premiere on Sunday, September 10, 2023.  For more information please go to

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  1. Beautifully written review. We can try and forget the reality beyond us, but it’s there and does affect most of us. I like to believe truth never dies and a film like this can keep some hard truths available, for us to ponder and Not forget. TY, I’m not sure in my present state of melancholy I can watch this, but glad it’s out there, to ponder deeply.

    • Thanks for your comments Deborah and thanks for reading my thoughts on this meaningful film. I’m not sure I will watch it again but it’s an essential watch (for when you’re up for it). Thank you again for your kind words.

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