‘Zone of Interest’ Director Jonathan Glazer, Double-Nominated This Year, Delivers a Bleak Masterpiece Once a Decade. Don’t Miss the One He Made in 2014

Even without acknowledging the 2023 accomplishments of directors like Wes Anderson, Greta Gerwig, Celine Song, David Fincher, or Todd Haynes, this year’s group of best director nominees is inarguably a solid lot, which makes it even easier to favor someone who isn’t Jonathan Glazer, director of The Zone of Interest. It’s easy to admire (and, for plenty of fans, to downright revere) likely winner Christopher Nolan, who has delivered movie after movie of staggering scale and ambition, equally adept at delivering weighty history lessons with the speed-punch of a thriller (like Oppenheimer) and auteurist sci-fi spectacle capable of finding its cult despite a global pandemic (like Tenet). Martin Scorsese is in the midst of a late-career run that’s staggering even by his high standards; do you not feel just plain lucky to be able to experience some of that in real time? Justine Triet’s riveting courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall will strike many American audiences as coming from nowhere, and the sheer unlikelihood of Yorgos Lanthimos becoming an Academy favorite is nearly as delightful as his dark-comic fairy tale Poor Things.

By comparison, Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest might seem remote; at times, I admit, it struck me more as a museum piece than a movie I could latch onto emotionally. That’s likely part of the intention, of course, given that the movie jumps into literal museum hallways for its stunning final moments. Yet it’s also hard (again, intentionally) to experience this version of Zone of Interest, adapted from a Martin Amis novel, as a narrative; it’s more akin to found-footage horror where hardly anyone freaks out about the unspeakable lurking just outside of the fixed frame.

Watching a Nazi commandant and his family living their lives next to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, dealing with work, marriage, and the like while unseen Jews are exterminated just a hundred feet away, presents a chilling exercise in both human identification (these Nazi stories exist, whether we want them to or not) and queasy voyeurism. It’s also an achievement that feels uniquely directorial, even as it obviously requires the same craftsmanship in acting, writing, production design, and sound design—oh, god, the sound design. Glazer comes from the world of music videos, where big-name directors of his era could often serve as conceptual pure-cinema architects of a clip’s ideas and execution. While there’s nothing in Zone of Interest that obviously recalls what we think of as a music-video aesthetic, it does have the kind of rigorous dedication to its conceptual framework that’s a lot easier to maintain in four-minute bursts. That Zone does sustain itself for 100-plus, building to a ghostly, indelible finale, manages to be deeply impressive while casting any of the other four directors’ work as, by comparison, something of a relief. Maybe Glazer deserves the award for that unnerving feat alone.

That said, there’s an earlier Glazer picture that even better hybridizes his potentially alienating techniques with his close observation of human behavior. Absent any World War II connection to give awards audiences a heads-up about its importance, 2014’s Under the Skin had no shot at Oscar glory when it was released ten years ago. (Another off-putting triumph, Birth, came about ten years before that, suggesting that Glazer’s next shot at an Oscar will come no earlier than the 2030s.) It’s about an alien being (Scarlett Johansson) who—for reasons never fully explicated— roams around Scotland luring strange men to their doom. Eventually, she appears to undergo a kind of gradual transfusion of human empathy, though the movie doesn’t exactly become a gender-flipped Starman.

As with Zone of Interest, Glazer pursues an unobtrusive gaze; some of its scenes were filmed with non-actors, using hidden cameras. What could seem clinical and monotonous, however, contains beguiling mystery, predicated on the familiar yet unknowable face of Johansson, an actress sometimes criticized for her unaffected blankness. In Under the Skin, her otherworldly, alien qualities are, paradoxically, the human heart of the film. Again, based purely on concept, Glazer’s bare-bones adaptation of a novel feels like the outline of a horror-tinged music video: An alien observing humans, sometimes leading them into a liquid-black void. Instead of telling this dialogue-light story with maximum visual flash, Glazer expands the canvas of his gimmick until the action feels both poetically spare. By design, the frame of Under the Skin is less constricted than The Zone of Interest, its form allowing a little more room to wander, visually speaking. Yet it’s no less disciplined, no less exacting. Glazer proves that he doesn’t need self-imposed rigor (or the safe brevity of music videos) to bring his precise vision to life.

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