We may only be in the early days of February, but the scariest movie of the year has already arrived – and it’s probably not what you're expecting. Forget traditional horror movies, from Blumhouse’s latest Imaginary to Robert Eggers’ upcoming vampire tale Nosferatu. Instead, the most terrifying film of 2024 will certainly be The Zone of Interest, the new feature from director Jonathan Glazer who previously chilled audiences with his Scarlett Johansson-led sci-fi thriller Under the Skin.
If you are at all familiar with that movie then you will know that as a filmmaker Glazer has always been one to traverse genres. Under the Skin is a road movie, a sci-fi, a horror, a thriller, an exploration of female sexuality, a look at gender relations, and so much more – it defies genre. Glazer also did the same with anti-heist movie Sexy Beast and his 2004 drama Birth, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are plenty of layers to uncover with his new work The Zone of Interest, which is advertised as an historical drama loosely based on author Martin Amis’ novel of the same name.
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Opening on husband and wife Rudolf (Christian Friedel) and Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), we are given a picture of an ordinary couple's mundane domestic life. Flowers grow in their garden, Rudolf is focusing on getting a promotion at work, Hedwig talks of summer parties with friends, and their children play happily with new toys. It all seems, well, normal – and that’s because it is. But that’s where the horrors lie.
As Rudolf and Hedwig continue with their mundane day-to-day lives, the most horrific things are happening behind the scenes. Hiding behind the high walls next to their idyllic home is Auschwitz, the concentration camp that Rudolf oversees as a high-ranking Nazi officer. Only yards away from where he is raising his family, the most evil atrocities in history are happening. And if that alone doesn’t make The Zone of Interest a horror movie, then I don’t know what exactly would.
A blind eye
Just like with more traditional horror movies, the terrors in The Zone of Interest lie in the background of what we are seeing, lurking in the shadows. Black smoke clouds pollute the blue summer sky, busy trains filled with faceless Jewish families go by, and muffled screams are heard in the distance. Much has been made of The Zone of Interest’s impressive soundscape in reviews, and for good reason. Mica Levi’s haunting score and Johnnie Burn’s eerie sound design send chills down the spine, with a foreboding quietness that at times is loudly punched through, almost physically shaking you in your seat.
Every now and again there is a more explicit nod to the evils the family is blatantly ignoring – for instance, in one scene, Hedwig’s mother wonders if a Jewish woman she once knew is now behind the camp's walls. However, like with all these moments, it is fleeting, as the conversation swiftly moves on to congratulating Hedwig on her lavish life. Of course, these luxuries come at a cost: the lives of millions of Jews. Not that Hedwig minds.
In plain sight
Glazer understands that the most terrifying aspect of this situation is the refusal of the Höss family (who were real-life figures) to acknowledge what is happening next door – to them it’s a completely different universe that lies far, far away. The camera never shows what is happening behind those gates of hell, never taking us beyond the walls of Hedwig’s blooming garden – but why would it, when Rudolf and his family turn a blind eye themselves? The family aren’t inviting us to look. Instead, the film acts almost as a home video, only capturing what they want to see.
However, whilst horror films typically build to the ultimate reveal of the monster at the root of the evil, The Zone of Interest doesn’t, as there is simply no need to. The monster has been on show the whole time, thriving in plain sight, feeding off all the pain. And, surely, that is more disturbing than anything else we will see on screen this year.
The Zone of Interest is out in UK and US theaters now. For more haunting films, check out our recommendations of the best horror movies of all time.
Keep your eyes peeled for the next article in our Big Screen Spotlight series, our guide to what you should be watching at the cinema.