February 21, 2024

Such was Höss’s moral stupor and mental denial that he claimed to not have mistreated a single prisoner, let alone killed one. He simply went about carrying out orders, “a cog in the wheel of the great extermination machine created by the Third Reich,” he said. In the film, we see him welcoming two gentlemen from the venerable firm of Topf and Sons, as they proudly present the designs of a rotating incinerator that burns 500 bodies “continuously.” Later, he chairs what could be a regular corporate meeting: Delegates open their file folders, flip to a page, and start talking about “timings.” The men of the SS bang on the table to applaud a fellow director who has consistently hit his quota. He’s told that he’s returning to Auschwitz, to direct one of the largest extermination campaigns the world has ever seen, which nearly wiped out the Hungarian Jews, massacring more than 300,000 in less than two months. When Himmler names the operation after him—Aktion Höss—Höss is so elated that he cannot wait to call Hedwig to tell her the news.

We spot Höss one final time as he leaves the Oranienburg compound, but not before he looks down a dark, empty corridor, toward the camera. We see what he sees: complete darkness, except for a slim tunnel of light that recalls the projector of a movie cinema. It is in fact the door of the gas chamber of the crematorium, and we are inside the present-day Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, where one woman sweeps the floor while another wipes down the iron furnaces. More cleaners file past displays of mountains of suitcases, spectacles, shoes—Höss’s diligence is compared to another kind of cleansing, one of duty to the ruins of pain.

The screen cuts to black, but you’d be mistaken to think the ordeal is through. The Zone of Interest ends the way it began, with complete darkness overwhelmed by some three minutes of extraordinary music by the English composer and singer Mica Levi, who summons a chorus of pain out of whispers, groans, and chants over an unrelenting and otherworldly haze of ascending and descending arpeggios. The Zone of Interest tenders the most powerful sonic encounter of recent memory, from “Sunbeams” to the sight of a mutilated soldier enjoying a Strauss march, to what I detect is a hint of the polka “Rosamunde” being broadcast as a form of mocking torture inside the walls of the camp; music was heard, after all, even in Auschwitz. But it is Levi’s refrain that represents the soul of the tortured “zone,” and will continue to get under my skin.