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Cannes: You’ve never seen a Holocaust film like ‘The Zone of Interest’

A scene from Jonathan Glazer’s new drama, “The Zone of Interest.”

By Kyle Buchanan

You might not know where you are when “The Zone of Interest” begins, and that’s by design. This new film from director Jonathan Glazer, which has been hotly tipped for a major prize at the Cannes Film Festival since its premiere Friday night, opens on a bucolic picnic by the lake. Family members chat in German, wander off, attend to children and soak up the sun. And Glazer’s long, wide shots let us settle in, too.

Eventually, they go home, and in their nice two-story house, parents Rudolf (Christian Friedel) and Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) retire to separate beds. In the morning, their daily routines begin: Maids prepare breakfast, children scatter, Rudolf dresses for work. But it’s all filmed in such faraway wide shots that it may take you a moment — once Rudolf walks into the front yard — to realize that this man is wearing an SS uniform.

From there, you might pick up on more unsettling details. Aren’t the walls that surround Hedwig’s garden topped by barbed wire? Can you barely make out the buildings on the other side, some of which billow smoke? And as the children play, don’t those faint, far-off noises start to sound like gunshots, guard dogs and screams?

This family’s life by the lake is only a bucolic idyll if you have blinders on — and to live there, you must — because it soon becomes clear that Rudolf is a Nazi commandant, and the house that Hedwig describes as her dream home abuts Auschwitz.

“The Zone of Interest” — adapted from the novel by Martin Amis, who died Friday — is Glazer’s first film in a decade. The British director has only three feature credits to his name, but each one — the raucous “Sexy Beast” (2001), the stunning Nicole Kidman drama “Birth” (2004) and the sci-fi tour de force “Under the Skin” (2014) — is so potent that he has never felt far gone.

Still, Glazer has never had a mainstream breakthrough or significant awards push, and I’m curious if it can come with “The Zone of Interest,” which will be distributed by A24 later this year. A Palme d’Or at Cannes would certainly help, but Glazer’s directing ought to attract a lot of attention: He frames the family’s mundane activities in static wide shots, cutting only when someone enters another room, as if they themselves are under eerie surveillance.

The Cannes jury might also reward Hüller, whose performance as selfish Hedwig is chilling. As Jews are killed next door, she recalls a trip and asks her husband, “Will you take me to the spa in Italy again? All that pampering.” Anything that happens past the walls of her luxurious garden simply doesn’t exist, or else it offers a mercenary opportunity: She eagerly tries on a confiscated fur coat and tells Rudolf to look for more items stolen from the camp’s prisoners. “Chocolate, if you see it,” she wheedles. “Tiny goodies.”

And if the film connects enough to become an awards contender down the road, I hope voters will pay attention to its carefully calibrated sound design. In the early going, there’s a hush, the kind of quiet you can have only if something is notably absent. Later, the sounds that drift from the camp are harder to ignore. Perhaps when “The Zone of Interest” began, we were listening through Hedwig’s ears.

As we filed out after the premiere, the man sitting next to me confessed that he only understood 50% of the film. But I think the other 50% is meant to be felt, and for all of Glazer’s formal precision, he leaves plenty of room for viewers to come to their own conclusions. Does the family’s denial have contemporary parallels? How do the rhythms of work and life mitigate unimaginable horrors? And what did you hear in the hush before you could make out the screams?

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