Review: Zone of Interest is the "Banality of Evil" film adaptation we've all been waiting for

Typically, psych majors have to read an excerpt from Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem in their first year. "Such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man." It's a worthy lesson, one that makes you think about all the worst possible outcomes of actions you find benign. The road to hell and its paving materials, etc etc. Or, in Eichmann's case, the road to middle to upper management. Eichmann, at face value, is a rather boring figure, essentially an elevated bureaucrat, in a position of power not because he's a true believer in Nazi ideology, but because he wants to secure and maintain his job. He uses a lot of contrived metaphors, he insists he was "just following orders." He's unremarkable, ideologically unmotivated and that's where the horror lies.

The Zone of Interest is a glib portrait of the day-to-day life of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz. He gets dressed, his wife orders the maid around, his children play, his mother-in-law visits. We get to see the thrilling act of him vying with administrators over the phone in order to stay in his position at Auschwitz. He likes it there, his wife's made a beautiful garden. His problems, with work and family, are mostly boring, save for his affair(s). They are insignificant. I felt a bit of initial shock at his infidelity, but then came to terms with the feeling. This is by no means the worst thing he's done, obviously. But the punchline is effective; Höss is just living his life, liaisons and all.

Nearly every shot, though, has some bit of visual punch or diegetic sound that indicates something is terribly wrong. Above the garden wall, smoke from the incoming train billows by. An officer's boots track in blood. Gunshots are constant. Höss holds an officer's meeting in his home in his socks. From the start, the spring and summer at Auschwitz are happy. New clothes arrive from a surmisable source; Hedwig tries them on and pays no mind to the sounds of violence from outside.

Initially, the constant pops and bangs of the concentration camp next door come off as a little ham-fisted. It's Rudolph Höss, it's Auschwitz, it's Nazi Poland, it's a film about a garden, kind of, right next door. If the meaning seems obvious, it's because it is. But then it keeps going. Every shot has some indication of both the banal and the omniscient violence intrinsic to the environment.

Horns from the hunt adorn the walls. Houseguests complain about how long the train ride was, and how hot. Officers compare, in extremely German fashion, about which train route saves an extra seven minutes of travel time. You never, ever forget that these are Nazis, absolutely every bit of boring daily life is punctuated by this fact. The Zone of Interest is gravely serious but in less capable hands would invite a bit of black humor. "Do what you love", etc.

Hoss is young, seems to really like his job and his current station, at least enough to fight for it. He and his wife seem to have come from significantly lower standing earlier in their lives. They dreamt of owning a house with a garden. His mother-in-law was formerly a maid.

Höss did not believe himself to be a bad person; he was just as good at following orders as he was at giving them. He was a family man. In his autobiography, Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, he insists that he was doing his job and didn't express overt regret. It's not errors in the translation that make the book come off as cold and unfeeling.

This is the point that Glazer hammers home, over and over again. It's boring. Eichmann was boring. Höss was boring. Eichmann and Hoss are not exceptional people. In fact, their characters are probably more accurately representative of the greater percentage of the people involved with the Nazis. After all, most of the French either collaborated with the Nazis/Vichy regime or did nothing at all. But who hasn't fantasized about being on the ride side of history, joining the resistance and living to tell the tale? Most people are self-preserving. The true horror of evil is in its ubiquity and banality. Great film. End of college lecture.