In Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, what is on the screen is as crucial as what is beyond the frame. Glazer’s German-language masterwork recreates the horrors of Nazi atrocities as they unfolded at Auschwitz by never stepping into the concentration camp.

Instead, we are next door, at the beautifully ordered home of the camp’s commandant Rudolf Hoss and his family. At the Hoss residence, there are conversations about the kind of stuff that all families talk about. Across a low-slung wooden fence, the Final Solution is underway, evoked through ominous sound design.

The Zone of Interest daringly puts itself in the position of the Hosses, who are blind and deaf to their inhumanity. Hedwig (Sandra Huller) is terribly concerned about her garden and the various plants she has grown here (there is no shortage of fertiliser, supplied by the camp). She is praised by her husband for her house-keeping skills. “He calls me the queen of Auschwitz,” she tells her friends, and they have a good laugh.

Rudolf (Christian Friedel) is hard at work. A new design for a crematorium that will ensure a higher death toll has to be approved. Rudolf must ensure a constant supply of slave labour to German companies. He is annoyed by the lack of regard his soldiers have for flowers, and dictates a memo to that effect. (The film is always alert to the absence of irony, one of the hallmarks of fascism).

The Zone of Interest, which has been nominated for five Oscars, is supposedly an adaptation of Martin Amis’s novel of the same name. Apart from the title and a few ideas, the 105-minute movie and its source material are vastly different.

Sandra Huller in The Zone of Interest (2023).

Amis’s savage satire fictionalised Hoss as Paul Doll, and focused on an unlikely love triangle brewing at Auschwitz between Doll, his wife and his junior officer. Glazer’s movie names Rudolf and Hedwig Hoss, extracts the essence of key events from the novel, and swaps Amis’s mordant tone for a sobering account of the banality of evil in practice.

The phrase “banality of evil” was first used by philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book about the trial of Holocaust organiser Adolf Eichmann. In Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), Arendt writes about how Eichmann “went to the gallows with great dignity”, declaring his fealty to his cause until the end.

“He was in complete command of himself, nay, he was more: he was completely himself,” Arendt writes. “It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

Glazer’s portrait of unconscionable apathy always makes it clear that its characters are not automatons carrying out orders but willing participants. The Hosses are living the embodiment of “lebensraum”, or living space, the idea that underpinned Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s conquests beyond Germany in the 1940s as well as provided one of the justifications for the Holocaust.

The couple and their five children are aware of as well as inured to the goings-on at the camp that lies on the other side of their garden wall. That each of them is culpable to a different degree is brought by Glazer’s superbly calibrated screenplay.

Christian Friedel in The Zone of Interest (2023).

The movie falters only when Hedwig’s mother, who has dropped in for a visit, has an uncharacteristic reaction to the camp’s functioning. Otherwise, The Zone of Interest is remarkably sure-footed and controlled. In terms of tonality, a companion piece is Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz (2016), a seemingly neutral, observational documentary about tourists at the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps.

Lukasz Zal’s precise widescreen frames view their subjects with the same distance with which they regarded their victims. In one of the few close-ups, Rudolf’s face is clouded in smoke from the incinerators. As the family enjoys its impeccably designed garden, the steam from a train bearing more victims lines the horizon.

Sound designer Johnnie Burn conjures up the heavy price of this bliss – the muffled cries, the gunshots, the barking of guard dogs, the sepulchral breathing of the endlessly burning incinerators where victims were cremated after being gassed. The movie acknowledges the impossibly brave resistance to the Nazis through scenes involving thermal imagery.

Even from a remove – or rather because of it – the pure evil of the Nazi regime comes vividly alive. The film’s formal rigour and lack of unsentimentality provide a view of the Third Reich as the Nazis themselves possibly saw it. The movie has a startling echo in the present – with Gaza, where callousness to the suffering of Palestinians is the order of the day.

The Zone of Interest (2023).