Typically, it’s a hallmark of a great director that you get a feeling for the person behind the camera; they oblige you to share a consciousness, to see the world through their eyes. When Brian De Palma orchestrates one of his signature tracking shots, you’re keenly aware of his voyeuristic excitement and you get swept up in it despite yourself; when Barry Jenkins holds for a close-up, it’s as if you’re scrutinizing the inner life of the character right alongside him. You can tell from the way Claire Denis films dance sequences that she’s comfortable in her body, while Yorgos Lanthimos certainly is not; it’s obvious that James Cameron knows the bottom of the ocean like the back of his hand. David Fincher’s impossible eye observes the universe in sharp, pitiless focus; in the lucid daydreams of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, reality itself becomes blurred around the edges.
As for Jonathan Glazer, his directorial presence manifests in a palpable and paradoxical sense of emptiness; his movies, including this year’s surprise Best Picture nominee, The Zone of Interest, feel oddly disembodied, as if willed into existence by some malign, unseen presence. There’s always something lurking in Glazer’s work: He specializes in sensations of stalking and surveillance. Similar to generational peers like Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, Glazer helped to reshape pop cultural syntax in the mid-’90s with a series of supremely creepy music videos, including a couple of choice collaborations with his fellow Brits in Radiohead; the haunting promo for 1997’s OK Computer hit “Karma Police” features a man being pursued slowly by a car along a desolate stretch of roadway, seen from the perspective of a dashboard-mounted camera. The situation is inexplicable, and the execution is similarly uncanny—a paranoid nightmare bristling with existential subtext. The next year, Glazer reteamed with Thom Yorke and trip-hop act Unkle for “Rabbit in Your Headlights,” which once again featured a menacing car and its human quarry (portrayed by the brilliant French actor Denis Lavant), culminating in a startling bit of resurrection imagery.
Not everything on Glazer’s early résumé was so paranoid: He’s also the guy who helped introduce Jamiroquai (and his hat) to the wider public with the benignly trippy video for “Virtual Insanity” (which won the 1997 award for Video of the Year at the MTV VMAs). Transitioning to features, Glazer scored a hit with Sexy Beast, starring Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley as quotably profane underworld rivals; in a moment when everybody was trying to be the next Quentin Tarantino, Glazer carved out his own distinctive neo-genre. In a movie ruled by comically over-cranked dialogue, Glazer’s signature strangeness emerged through the silent, terrifying figure of a demonic, bipedal, machine gun–toting rabbit—a menacing descendant of James Stewart’s imaginary pal Harvey, from the 1950 film of the same name—who similarly symbolized Winstone’s character’s inner id. The film’s success gave Glazer the latitude to make the neo-surrealist drama Birth, which tackled cosmic themes of fate and reincarnation; the opening scene features another of the director’s doomed running men, this one a jogger cruising through Central Park, which never looked lonelier or more labyrinthine than when seen through his lens.
While not explicitly a horror movie, Birth features a number of freaky sequences punctuated by allusions to the work of Stanley Kubrick—a director Glazer evidently admires. There was plenty of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 2013’s sci-fi thriller Under the Skin, but the film was anything but derivative; its mix of avant-garde abstraction and documentary realism (including multiple scenes captured with hidden cameras) was inspired. If casting Scarlett Johansson as a predatory extraterrestrial was, on some level, a pretty good joke about the star’s otherworldly aura, the film never smirked at its own cleverness: At times, its poker-faced detachment is terrifying. The sequence in which Johansson’s character stoically watches a couple drown in the waters off a rocky beach in Scotland—leaving their infant wailing helplessly on the shore—is one of the bleakest set pieces of all time, splitting the difference between sadism and resignation. It’s one thing to present us with an inhuman character and another to inhabit a believably alien gaze; in its most effective passages, the tactile anxiety embedded in Under the Skin’s title was like a prophecy fulfilled.
The Zone of Interest is even more unsettling than Under the Skin, and it may well be the most radical movie, in terms of form, ever nominated for Best Picture: You don’t so much watch it as feel it on the back of your neck and in the pit of your stomach. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Glazer, who’s rightly nominated for Best Director (as well as Best Adapted Screenplay), explained that his goal with his long-gestating fourth feature was to make a movie that felt “un-authored”: a phrase that captures the uncanniness of the film’s vision. By literally removing himself from the equation on set and directing sequences from inside a concrete bunker rigged with a bank of surveillance monitors, Glazer was probing the limits of his own control: the auteur as the Man Who Wasn’t There.
In Under the Skin, Glazer stripped away all the elements of Michel Faber’s source novel that he found superfluous, but as an act of adaptation, The Zone of Interest cuts even closer to the bone. All that remains of Martin Amis’s 2014 novel about the affair between a Nazi officer and the wife of a concentration camp commandant is the insidious, officious euphemism of the title, which refers to the civilian lodgings erected at the edges of Auschwitz—a few lines of the book’s dialogue are borrowed, as well. In the book, one of the characters describes “the zone” as being a mirror that reveals one’s true face, but Glazer’s version is less interested in reflection than repression; his characters refuse to see themselves lest they go mad with recognition. The film, which took nearly 10 years of research and preparation before shooting on location in Poland, barely has a plot. It’s been constructed episodically, and nearly every scene forces you to find your bearings, at which point you’d just as soon be anywhere else. A prologue depicting a group trip to a tree-lined swimming hole is so bucolic that it could be a fantasy—or a parody—but as the idyll drags on, the lyricism becomes pressurized by dread; there are serpents in Eden. The sunbathers are revealed to be the various members of the Höss clan, whose patriarch, Rudolf (Christian Friedel), is a rising star in the Nazi party; driving home at dusk with his wife and children in tow, he’s a family man steeling himself for work the next day.
Tomorrow belongs to the Hösses: With their pristine, two-story, stucco villa and carefully manicured backyard, they’re a model of upward mobility, and Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) takes pains to be a good hostess, whether the guests are her husband’s coworkers or her mother. At the office, Rudolf is praised by his colleagues for his ability to “turn theory into practice,” which is a polite way of saying he has a knack for the nuts and bolts of systematic genocide. The obscenely obfuscating nature of language and protocol—the question of how things are said and also left unsaid—is part of Glazer’s subject, which is nothing less than the self-hypnotizing nature of evil: the way that people stage-manage their own sense of denial until it’s no longer there. It’s clear from the start that Rudolf isn’t just following orders but giving them, and fashionista Hedwig is anything but innocent when it comes to where certain expensive pieces of her stylish wardrobe come from; she knows her new fur coat is stolen Jewish property. But they carry on anyway, as if playing a nauseous game of chicken with their own consciences (and consciousnesses), unwilling—or maybe unable—to acknowledge the truth of the situation.
When The Zone of Interest premiered at Cannes, the question on many people’s minds was how a filmmaker like Glazer—so skilled at raising goosebumps when he wants to—would tackle the visual representation of atrocity. The idea of a movie set at Auschwitz shot with the unblinking concentration of Under the Skin’s beach scene is almost too mortifying to contemplate. Glazer’s solution was to double down on the idea of slow, sustained focus without really showing us anything: Everything we see takes place on the Hösses’ side of the towering, wire-barbed wall separating their property from the camp. It’s a partition effectively dividing reality in two, between peaceful, bourgeois domesticity and hell on earth, and while Rudolf can cross freely between both realms, we’re prohibited from following. On one level, Glazer’s style is a form of refusal—a way to avoid lapsing into the lurid, aestheticized sensationalism that can permeate even well-intentioned dramas about the Holocaust. On another level, he’s weaponizing negative space in a way that transcends any kind of literal depiction: It’s precisely because we can’t see over or behind the wall that we know what’s going on.
Actually, we can see a little: The billowing clouds of ash visible at the top of certain frames evoke what Elie Wiesel called “wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.” And we can hear: Perhaps more than anything, The Zone of Interest is a triumph of soundscaping, melding the chirps and rustles of the natural world with the echoes of omnipresent, mechanized death. Taken purely as a technical exercise, the film is remarkably accomplished, and that extends to its actors, whose performances vibrate on the same wavelength of ambient malevolence; as good as Hüller was this year in Anatomy of a Fall, her work here arguably has a greater degree of difficulty. In Justine Triet’s courtroom drama, Hüller’s character was meant to contain multitudes, but here, the actress hollows herself so thoroughly that Hedwig seems to exist at a distance from her own impulses and emotions. (Hence the almost complete lack of close-ups.) When she confronts Rudolf about her refusal to relocate their household to another outpost, her sincerity is genuine but also somehow curdled; it’s more about sustaining an illusion than real fulfillment. And Friedel, who is also mostly shot from a medium-long distance, and with even less dialogue, has exactly the right complex physicality—sturdy and upright but also furtive, as if trying to hide in plain sight. An extended sequence of Rudolf carefully and methodically locking every door in the house not only draws attention to editor Paul Watts’s astonishingly precise match-cutting, but also the thrumming, barely subliminal themes of concealment and compartmentalization, which straddle both physical and psychic space.
Interestingly, Glazer’s most ingenious device is also his most misunderstood: the deployment of a thermal imaging camera to depict the nocturnal rounds of a teenage girl attempting to help the prisoners in any way possible, including leaving food at construction sites. (Several critics have misidentified the girl as the Hösses’ maid when she’s clearly a neighbor; the same hypnotic strategy that pulls some viewers in may cause others to tune out.) She’s at once a symbol of resistance and an homage to a real person whom Glazer met during his research—a 90-year-old woman named Alexandra whom the filmmaker called his “North Star.” Despite their deliberately hallucinatory texture, the scenes adhere to the same stripped-down realism as the rest of the film; in an interview with Vanity Fair, Glazer explained that since the daytime sequences were shot only with natural light, he wanted to follow his own rules when it came to night shooting. “Really, it just came down to, ‘What’s the only tool that exists where we’ll be able to see something that our eyes couldn’t?’” he said, returning to the idea of vision: The same rigor that keeps certain horrors out of view allows us to see humanity enduring under the cover of darkness.
There are other, deliberate ruptures in Glazer’s self-consciously monotonous design, including expressionistic bursts of color and music that don’t so much dissipate the atmosphere as deepen it (the score is by Mica Levi, the reigning master of experimental, atonal movie music) and a late detour into a documentary sequence that hearkens back to Alain Resnais’s seminal Night and Fog (1956) without copying it. The closing passages of The Zone of Interest are almost unbearably tense, partly because, having sustained such a tricky, vertiginous balancing act between illustration and implication for so long, we can’t help but wonder how Glazer will find his way out. In the end, he settles on a single, perversely perfect gesture—one that distills almost impossibly complex notions of individual and collective complicity into something spasmodic, involuntary, and visceral. It’s the residue of history, and for all of its airtight construction, Glazer’s film is spacious enough in its implications to suggest not only that the stain will never wash away, but that it’s spreading even now.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.