Why The Zone of Interest should win the best picture Oscar | Oscars 2024

This year’s field of best picture nominees includes epic explorations of mass violence (likely winner Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon), achingly emotional tales of human connection (Past Lives, The Holdovers), sharp satires of race and gender (American Fiction, Poor Things) and an obligatory blockbuster (Barbie).

And then there’s The Zone of Interest, a British-Polish-American production directed by Jonathan Glazer, operating in its own lane. Its plot isn’t so much a story as icy submersion via observance, its characters beyond morally bankrupt, its canvas blanched, rigid, understated. The power is in its elision: what we can’t see but know is there, what we hear – the grunts, gunshots and grind of genocide, as an unceasing background hum. (The film is, among other things, a feat of sound design.)

It’s a restrained yet ruthless and effective way to portray the Holocaust, this portrait of one Nazi bureaucrat family’s bucolic bliss and petty insecurities aside the Auschwitz concentration camp. A high wall and disturbing dissociation are all that separate the Höss family – camp commandment Rudolf (Christian Friedel), wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), her mother Linna (Imogen Kogge) and their children – from seeing the atrocities. I have been one of many to praise the film’s rendering of the banality of evil; Glazer strips Hannah Arendt’s concept of cliches and hammers home one disturbing point again and again: human beings can compartmentalise, can self-justify and, fascinatingly and horrifyingly, ignore.

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Glazer’s project is one of a handful of 2023 films, mostly festival darlings such as All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt and The Taste of Things, that subvert mainstream cinema’s over-reliance on plot – The Zone of Interest, loosely based on the 2014 novel by Martin Amis, is first and foremost a sensory experience of sight and sound, even imagined smell and temperature. The dialogue is sparse and largely unremarkable, the characters opaque, their actions mundane, though inflicted with evidence of the barbarity next door. (You will not look at ash in the same way again.) It is not a secret – everyone, even the children, know on some level what is going on. It is either irrelevant, unimportant, or unremarkable to them, less pressing than the next meal.

Glazer breaks from the family and form just a handful of times, most effectively in a powerful, enigmatic ending up to interpretation that flashes forward to the present. I tend to agree with AA Dowd, writing for Vulture, that Höss’s retching represents not a flash of conscience but a recognition of one’s insignificance in the grand sweep of history. The Zone of Interest gallingly, strikingly insists on portraying the Holocaust as “the story of genocide as a Q3 project, a line on a middle manager’s résumé,” writes Dowd. How chilling and resonant, the sociopathic detachment and desire to be good at one’s murderous job.

The Oscars are a popularity contest and The Zone of Interest, which is as brutal and nauseating a film as I can remember without showing almost any violence, will not be the most popular. If this were a morality vote, it certainly has one of the strongest cases for how cinema, as an art form, can illustrate humans’ capability for such monstrous crimes against other humans. But the Oscars, in theory, are supposed to reward an achievement of craft and on that front The Zone of Interest is impeccable. It deserves recognition for its rigorous, precise execution of style, its feat of immersion, and for its impressive gambit of perspective. It is about time the Oscars reward one of, if not the most, audacious films of the year.


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