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Haunting Holocaust movie ‘The Zone of Interest’ keeps gaining momentum

TORONTO — Noah Morse, a 26 year-old filmmaker, was coming off a full-day shift volunteering at the Telluride Film Festival in early September when he decided he needed to see the 10 p.m. showing of Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” which wouldn’t let out till midnight.

Friends tried to warn him off it. The film, which is entirely in German, has long, stagnant shots that would put him to sleep. It’s also a Holocaust movie that focuses on the family of Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel of Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” with Sandra Hüller, the lauded star of 2016’s “Toni Erdmann”) as they carve out an existence in a house that abuts a wall of Auschwitz — not exactly the people you want to spend almost two hours with before bed.

But Morse, who’s Jewish, had heard enough about the film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and was having its North American premiere that night in Colorado, to know he was intrigued. Plus, he’d liked Glazer’s previous films, like 2000’s “Sexy Beast” and 2013’s “Under the Skin,” starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien who drives around Scotland seducing and preying on men. This was the filmmaker’s first movie in 10 years — and seemed like a fascinating total departure. (Glazer is Jewish and grew up in London.)

“I wouldn’t classify it as slow cinema in any regard,” Morse said. “I was completely locked in.”

For days afterward, he couldn’t stop talking about it with anyone he met. Some people found it thoughtful and innovative. Others, particularly Jews, were offended, frustrated and bored by it. “I think the film accomplishes the same thing people are critiquing it for, which is depicting the banality of this guy’s lifestyle and the banality of evil,” said Morse. “And people didn’t like that. People don’t like seeing a Nazi having a pool party and having dinner with his kids and having pillow talk with his wife, you know?”

Glazer’s film, which will be released Dec. 8, is currently on one of the most remarkable winning streaks of any movie this year. With Hollywood upended by the dual strikes of the writers and actors unions, a lane has been cleared for such challenging fare to garner sustained attention.

By my calculations, its trajectory traces back to an incredible — and incredibly rude — news conference I witnessed at Cannes four months ago, in which a coterie of international journalists kept hounding the festival’s jury members with a single question: Why hadn’t they given Glazer the Palme d’Or?

“Zone” won the Grand Prix, or runner-up prize, while the Palme went to French director Justine Triet’s gripping courtroom thriller, “Anatomy of a Fall” — making her only the second solo woman to win the top honor.

Now the two films’ fates seem intertwined. They each played at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals in early September and will be at the New York Film Festival in early October. Pundits think both have a shot of being rare international features to break through as Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, and they both star Hüller, who’s been able to be on the ground, since she’s not a member of the Screen Actors Guild.

Triet’s film, though, has the easier path, since it’s 59 percent in French, according to its distributor, with the rest mostly in English, and simply easier for a lot of Academy members to watch. (If “Zone” has an advantage, it’s being produced and distributed by A24, the folks behind “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”)

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Which makes the excitement around “Zone” even more intriguing. As a Jewish person in Europe, Glazer said during a Toronto Q&A, he’s studied and thought about the Holocaust most of his life. But his journey to making “Zone” began when he and producer James Wilson optioned Martin Amis’s 2014 novel of the same name, which focuses on a fictional Nazi officer based on Höss, the longest-serving commandant at Auschwitz. As he and his team began researching, though, they quickly decided to zero in on the real Höss, who was tried at Nuremberg.

The film’s researchers spent 10 years searching the vast archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in Poland for any mention of the Hösses. Much of the film’s dialogue is taken from actual transcripts, including a shocking argument between Rudolf and his wife, Hedwig, that reveals what Wilson calls the “atom-splitter of an idea” that inspired Glazer: that someone could think of Auschwitz as “a dream home.”

Glazer originally wanted to shoot in Höss’s real house, but they couldn’t because someone was living there. Eventually, they found another derelict house that was a mirror image of Höss’s, just a hundred meters away, but with the same striking geography, right up against a wall of Auschwitz. Production designer Chris Oddy essentially rebuilt the house and re-created Hedwig’s lush garden, where they had family gatherings while the smoke of the crematorium billowed just beyond.

The idea that anyone would live there was so preposterous to Telluride audience member Kevin Payravi, a 28 year-old software developer and Wikipedia editor, that he immediately researched it upon leaving the theater.

“I thought, ‘There’s no way his house was literally next door to the camp. That must be for shock value,’ but then I looked it up and it was right there, with a giant wall separating them from the burning bodies just a few feet away,” he aid. “Then I also looked at Google street maps and there was someone’s car in the driveway now, like it’s a normal house.”

From the start, Glazer knew he wanted to make something that looked like no other Holocaust film. “From everything from lessons at school to ‘Schindler’s List,’ there is a kind of understanding of the imagery and I certainly don’t want to repeat that,” he said.

Instead, he wanted the film to feel anthropological and unemotional, like the audience has dropped in on a slice of SS officer family life, and can use that time to think about disassociation and apathy to violence, which is illustrated only by glowing red skies, billowing smoke, and a chilling soundscape of screams and beatings. To achieve this, Glazer shot on 10 cameras at once, which Polish cinematographer Lukasz Zal planted all around the house and garden. During filming, Glazer and the crew hid in the basement.

“I didn’t want to empower them or glamorize or fetishize, which is very easy to do just because that’s the bloodstream of cinema,” said Glazer. “We saw it like ‘Big Brother’ in a Nazi house … We really just wanted to observe almost from a neutral point of view, to score a critical distance so we could see not how they thought but how they acted.”

The film opens with the Hösses and their five children enjoying a day sunning by the river. Payravi noticed the SS license plate on their car right away, but less observant viewers might not figure it out until Rudolf starts mentioning Hitler as his boss in casual conversation. What struck Morse most was how differently the film portrayed Nazis from the Holocaust education he’d received, which usually paints them as born villains or German citizens who got co-opted into joining because of fear or blind belief.

But Glazer is more interested in Nazi-ism as a mercenary act. “They’re doing it because it’s their job,” said Morse. “It’s a career path for them, and people who are in the upper rankings of this career also just happen to be the makers of mechanized death. This is a movie about [how] anyone can be evil.”

Glazer said he wasn’t commenting on current politics, but the film’s relevance grew over the 10 years it took to make it. “One of the things that seemed impossible to comprehend when we started was how a whole society could kind of relinquish their own moral responsibility,” he said. “And I think over the past few years, it’s become very obvious to me how that’s possible.”

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