Ever since my first screenwriting class in my junior year of college, I’ve adhered to the mantra of “show, don’t tell.” It’s the basic idea that when it comes to writing for film, it’s more often than not better to let the audience see what’s going on, rather than just talking about it. There are myriad examples of how modern filmmakers and writers go the wrong way on this, from using phrases like, “As you know” from one character to another in order to begin an exposition dump, to the Star Wars prequels where Obi-Wan and Anakin would talk about great adventures they had off screen before going back to talking about trade routes or senate procedures. The understanding is that cinema is a visual medium, and if you can’t get an idea across from the images on the screen, you might need to rethink your approach.
That said, there are exceptions to every rule, and it is necessary to have some verbiage to contextualize events and dialogue to form a coherent story. Even during the silent era, movies would often interrupt the proceedings for text cards that either tell the audience what’s happening or delivers conversation. That’s why we have writers in the first place. You can’t just point a camera and let the action unfold. There has to be structure, even if it’s in small doses, the make sure the viewer knows what’s going on. Otherwise you’ll have a situation like The Tree of Life, which was rightly lauded for its stunning photography, but was just pretentious noise when it came to plot. Many critics consider it one of the best films of the 21st Century, while it’s in my Bottom 5 all-time. You can have all the pretty shots in the world, but if you can’t tell a story, what’s the point?
These were the competing thoughts in my head as I watched The Zone of Interest, directed by Jonathan Glazer, which also happens to be the International Feature submission from the United Kingdom, being largely in German. This film has gotten a lot of press, with several critics putting it on their “Best Of 2023” lists, and it’s sure to clean up at the BAFTAs next year. And for what it’s worth, there is some amazing stuff in this movie worth celebrating. The problem is that Glazer, who previously balanced brilliant visuals with clever — even minimalist — writing with the likes of Sexy Beast and Under the Skin, drifts far too close to Tree of Life territory with the lack of narrative discipline this time out. I didn’t hate this by any means, but I was woefully disappointed that I didn’t love it as much as the critical consensus says I should.
The premise is simple but profound. A German officer named Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) lives in a lovely house with his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), his five children, and an energetic dog named Dilla (Hüller’s actual pet Weimaraner). They have a few live-in servants that handle the day-to-day chores, Hedy tends her garden, the kids go off to school, and the family as a whole enjoys the occasional outing, like a picnic, fishing trip, or horse riding. It would seem like an idyllic existence were it not for the fact that Höss is a commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, which is literally right over their back fence.
That is brutal, and it conjures up a world of possibilities. The fact that some of the worst acts ever committed occur just beyond our gaze — constantly heard but pointedly never seen apart from smoke billowing from the crematoriums — and that this family operates in an idealized fashion due to their complicity and/or direct involvement, is staggering. We are repeatedly shown the low-key callousness inherent in all of this, from Hedy trying on a fur coat confiscated from one of the inmates (during the Holocaust, Jews had to surrender all personal belongings and clothing upon arrival at the camps) as a form of shopping, to one of the children collecting discarded sets of teeth, to Hedy’s mother (Imogen Kogge) casually wondering if a wealthy Jewish woman she once worked for was somewhere in the camp and bemoaning that she was outbid for the woman’s curtains, to a giggling bit of gossip about someone trying to smuggle diamonds in their toothpaste. There’s a frightening cognitive dissonance on display, one that reverberates today, where those who vehemently wish for nationalist authoritarian rule don’t just become numb to terror, but incorporate it so fully into their lives that they treat atrocities as little more than white noise.
This extends to Rudolf’s job as commandant, a role in which he excels. He takes meetings where he discusses new and innovative ways to perpetuate genocide, enjoys the camaraderie of his subordinates when they throw him a birthday party, dictates missives to the higher-ups of the SS as if sending his secretary out for a lunch order, and proceeding through elite events with a disinterested detachment, because as he tells Hedy, he was too busy trying to figure out the logistics of gassing everyone in a room with such high ceilings. He’s a functionary in the cruelest way possible, treating every aspect of the unspeakable like a bullet point in his job description, and he takes immense pride in his ability to “solve” each of these items before coming home after a hard day’s work.
It’s utterly chilling the way Glazer uses fairly utilitarian means to demonstrate how the Nazi regime treated all of this as normal, and it has massive implications for where we as a species might be once again headed. That makes this a striking and essential film, one that truly needs to be seen to be believed. I genuinely mean that. The point is hammered home further by the one major plot development, where Rudolf is promoted and transferred, but Hedy is adamant that she and the children be allowed to keep the home that she’s spent the last three years working on and renovating to her liking, all while Jewish laborers flit in and out of the frame in silence, because speaking up means death. She’s directly thriving off the destruction of their lives, but heaven forfend she gets inconvenienced and forced to leave her own home. When we’re focused on depicting this ghastly irony, Glazer never wastes the moment.
But it’s all the stuff outside of that visual dichotomy that kills this picture in a death by a thousand cuts. If Glazer had just stayed on message, this would have easily been in my Top 10 for the year, but there are so many disjointed and nonsensical asides that only come off as pretentious and trying to be artsy-fartsy for its own sake, that I can’t give this a full-throated endorsement as a piece of art or entertainment.
The problems start from the very beginning, where the title comes on the screen, then takes over a minute to fade out, and then we go to black and just listen to Mica Levi’s atonal score for a solid two minutes (I honestly thought the projector was malfunctioning) before smash cutting to a bright shot of the family having a pleasant day by the river. One of Rudolf’s daughters sleepwalks, so he carries her to bed and reads her a story until she zonks out, and in those moments, we cut to strange side scenes shot in night vision that look like overexposed film negatives where a girl wanders the woods gathering and placing fruit, presumably where some inmates perform their forced labor, all accompanied by these guttural wind instruments that sound like the Earth itself is belching. The elder of the two sons locks the younger in the garden’s greenhouse during the winter, and the scene is just left hanging. Hedy’s mother suddenly disappears without explanation, leaving a note that Hedy burns upon reading before threatening to have her maids killed. A random child from another home comes across a poem by actual Auschwitz survivor Joseph Wulf that she somehow sets to piano music. A late moment is interrupted by an out of nowhere cutaway to the present day.
None of these sequences connects to anything. You can infer a thing or two, like the purpose of the girl with the fruit, or imagining that Hedy’s mother left because she couldn’t take the constant sounds of human suffering that the others have tuned out, but there’s nothing solid. This is what I mean when I say you have to tell us something occasionally. You don’t need to hold our hands and describe in painstaking detail what everything means, but there has to be some context beyond “Hey, look at all this stuff I’m throwing on the screen! Ain’t I a visionary? Is your mind not blown?” The dialogue is austere to the point of banality in places, and I assume that was the point, but it didn’t have to be that way. The imagery raises a ton of questions, and Glazer seems prepared to answer none of them, relying entirely on the stark visuals to fill in gaps larger than the Grand Canyon. There is a happy medium between Terrence Malick and M. Night Shyamalan when it comes to story. You can let us in on the minutiae without beating us over the head with it. It’s not “mysterious” or “layered” if you refuse to ensure that your message gets across. It’s just condescending, acting like it’s our fault if we don’t get it, even though it’s your job as the storyteller to make sure that we do.
God this was frustrating. This was an S-tier film that cut itself off at the knees in its quest to look like more of a game-changer than it actually was. All Glazer had to do was tell a simple story about a family of Nazis living their own version of paradise six feet away from the most gruesome display of evil in human history, and it would have been stupendous (good lord that sentence reads awful out of context). But instead of crafting an actual story (very loosely based on Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name, but using the real names of German officers), he tried to be too cutesy and poetic, and in doing so squandered almost all of the goodwill he was generating by portraying this intentionally extreme juxtaposition. I still firmly believe that in the vast majority of cases, “show, don’t tell” is the proper course of action, and this is still worth seeing for what Glazer gets right (especially if you’re like me and can see the writing on the wall that this could be a major contender come Oscar time). But we in the audience have to know what you’re showing us, and once we get past the main literary crux, most of us have no idea what we’re looking at, if we’re looking at anything at all.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What is your preferred storytelling style? Is it a bad thing when the dog is the most active and interesting character? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!