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Cannes 2023: The Zone of Interest, About Dry Grasses

Jonathan Glazer's "The Zone of Interest" opens with a black screen, set to the metallic moan of Mica Levi's score and some whispers. It could be a prelude to another alien movie, like Glazer's "Under the Skin." Then the first shot: a group of people, adults and children, frolicking by the side of a mountain stream. Where and when are we? They speak German. In a succession of immaculately composed, disturbingly normal scenes (clotheslines, streets), Glazer, in short order, reveals that this is a Nazi family. And not low-level Nazis. By the time there is talk of construction and "chambers ready to burn," it is more or less clear that the film will center on Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the commandant of Auschwitz, and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), who live adjacent to the death camp.

Very freely working from Martin Amis's 2014 novel of the same name, Glazer's film takes a rigorously withholding and formalized approach to its narrative. "The Zone of Interest" unfolds in shots as austere and hermetic as anything in the films of Roy Andersson. Jews at the death camp are never seen, and while their attempted extermination is not a secret to the characters, it is kept in the background. The sights and sounds of the death camp appear in the corners of the frame or are heard as ambient noise. Is it possible for people to dissociate on this scale—for children to play with toys, for women to socialize in a garden, for a husband to compliment his wife's perfume ("It's French," she replies)—while more than one million people are murdered in their backyard?

For the real Hösses, it must have been, and "The Zone of Interest" tries to find a way to capture that cognitive dissonance. But what is fundamentally flawed—and noxious—about Glazer's strategy is that it conflates the bubble he has constructed for viewers with the bubble he imagines his characters constructed for themselves.

As the director, Glazer gets to choose exactly how prominent a chimney will be in a particular composition or when a line of black smoke will cross the horizon. He can raise or lower the volume on the sounds of gunfire, dogs, and trains. He can deploy glimpses of the camp for shock value, as when Hedwig runs after her husband, strolling by the camp's concrete, barb-wired wall as casually as if it were a neighbor's hedge. He can reveal information—and what the Hösses know—on his own schedule and even break his own rules. (There are brief stretches when the film shifts to X-ray vision, and at one point, a poem by the Auschwitz survivor Joseph Wulf is spelled out in text onscreen.)

"The Zone of Interest" doesn't actually tell its story from the perspective of Nazis who have walled off reality (assuming they even tried to do so). It simply presents a perspective that has been ruthlessly delimited for effect. Technically, "The Zone of Interest" is impeccable, and there is no question that it is ambitious and experimental; expect it to be one of the most divisive and debated movies this year. And expect it to be considered, frankly, with greater time and closer viewings than the frenzied atmosphere of Cannes allows. But where some of my colleagues have seen a director in total control of his material, I saw a movie that was less interested in psychology than in its own virtuosity and in its ability to troll the audience with forbidden images.

With the 197-minute "About Dry Grasses," Nuri Bilge Ceylan has made a movie even longer (barely) than his Palme d'Or–winning "Winter Sleep" (2014), and whether it fully justifies that length is unclear on one viewing. What is clear is that he has a movie that, intriguingly, keeps refusing to be pinned down, even at one point breaking the fourth wall. An hour of seemingly aimless character study—the protagonist, Samet (Deniz Celiloglu), is an art teacher who discontentedly lives in a wintry Anatolian village—precedes what might be called the inciting incident, when Samet and Kenan (Musab Ekici), another teacher who rooms with him, are accused of misconduct.

Sorting out the particulars—exactly what they are being accused of and who accused them—takes them some time. But just when the film seems like it might firmly plant its flag as a legal drama, it shifts its emphasis again, toward the prospect of a relationship between Samet or Kenan and Nuray (Merve Dizdar), a teacher who has lost part of one leg in a suicide bombing. Ceylan's debt to Antonioni has always been obvious, and like "Blowup," "About Dry Grasses" is interested in the potential of photography as evidence. It's also a quintessentially Antonionian study of the unknowable, and how unexpected events shape personalities.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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