"The Zone of Interest" (2023) Ending Explained: Hidden Layers & Symbolism

Jonathan Glazer, the mastermind behind thought-provoking films like "Under the Skin," takes a daring plunge into the unsettling territory of Holocaust drama with his 2023 creation, "The Zone of Interest." This British filmmaker, renowned for his unique storytelling methods, fearlessly deviates from conventional cinematic norms to craft a narrative that shatters expectations.

In this exploration, Glazer skillfully directs our attention away from graphic visuals, opting instead for a haunting symphony of sounds that encapsulates the screams, drones, and agony of the Holocaust. "The Zone of Interest" demonstrates one of the darkest chapters in human history, artfully breaking cinematic traditions with its chilling effectiveness.

Real Pic of German SS officer and Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss

The film, nominated for two Oscars in 2024, unfolds the true story of Nazi Rudolf Höss, the commandant of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Glazer's lens, however, offers a fresh perspective, delving into Höss's domestic life juxtaposed with the horrors of Auschwitz, a cinematic paradox that sets the stage for a thought-provoking narrative.

Characters: A Closer Look

Rudolf Höss, portrayed by Christian Friedel, emerges as the central figure, embodying the banality of evil. His detached demeanor and sinister undertakings paint a chilling portrait of a man enmeshed in the atrocities of Auschwitz.

Hedwig, Rudolf's wife, played by Sandra Hüller, symbolizes the film's exploration of moral ambiguity. Unfazed by the horrors, she clings to the notion of Auschwitz as their dream life, even resisting a move when her husband is transferred.

The Polish girl, a beacon of humanity amidst darkness, epitomizes resistance and compassion. Filmed through a thermal camera, her risk-laden efforts to provide solace to prisoners add a touching layer to the narrative.

In this unconventional Holocaust drama, Glazer crafts characters whose lives intersect with evil, inviting us to confront the disconcerting realities of those entangled in the machinery of genocide.

Plot Summary: The Unconventional Approach

"The Zone of Interest" intricately weaves the domestic life of Nazi Rudolf Höss, played by the talented Christian Friedel, with the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Rudolf Höss with his family - The Zone of Interest 2023 - A24, Film4
Image Credit: A24 | Film4

As the curtain rises, we are introduced to the Höss family, seemingly living an upper-middle-class normality against the backdrop of Auschwitz. Picnics, children playing in the pool, and Hedwig tending to her garden create an idyllic facade. Yet, just beyond their walls, the billowing smoke from gas chambers and the relentless cacophony of machinery reveal the gruesome realities they choose to overlook.

The film takes a dark turn when Rudolf is transferred to Oranienburg. Rudolf, the commandant of Auschwitz, exhibits a chilling indifference, his blank face contrasting with the screams of terror that echo in the background. Even as he designs more efficient "crematoriums" to gas prisoners, the Höss family remains seemingly oblivious to the horrors engulfing their surroundings. Hedwig, nonchalantly donning the coat of a dead Jewish woman, epitomizes the film's exploration of cognitive dissonance.

Amidst this narrative, Hedwig's mother, initially resilient, succumbs to the overwhelming stench of death, leaving a poignant note as she departs. A glimmer of conscience pierces the darkness in the form of a Polish girl, risking her life to smuggle fruit into the camp. Inspired by a real-life heroine named Alexandria, Glazer captures this act of defiance through a thermal camera, adding a layer of authenticity to the film's portrayal.

Ending Overview: A Chilling Culmination

As "The Zone of Interest" hurtles towards its conclusion, the film unveils a spine-chilling sequence that encapsulates the unsettling fate of Nazi Rudolf Höss. Recognized for his "good" work, he is assigned a role in an operation transporting 700,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz for a sinister end. The prospect of reuniting with his family in Auschwitz adds a sinister layer to his seemingly successful life.

Nazi Rudolf Höss at a celebratory gala - The Zone of Interest 2023 - A24, Film4
Image Credit: A24 | Film4

The film takes a haunting turn as Rudolf revels in the success of the Holocaust, even naming the future slaughter as the "Hoss operation." His sadistic tendencies surface as he proudly recounts envisioning the gas chamber scenario during a celebratory gala. Yet, beneath the veneer of triumph, a glimpse of his inner turmoil emerges.

Following a phone call with his wife, Rudolf descends into the darkness of an empty Berlin office, grappling with an overpowering urge to retch. The movie catapults forward to the present day, portraying workers meticulously cleaning the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum—an evocative glimpse into the aftermath of Rudolf's legacy.

Fruit Girl, Hedwig's Mother & Rudolf's Dry Heaving

Identity of the Fruit Bearer

The Fruit Bearer teenage Polish girl through a thermal camera - The Zone of Interest 2023 - A24, Film4
Image Credit: A24 | Film4

A teenage Polish girl clandestinely stages fruit in the trenches and paths leading to Auschwitz under the cover of darkness. Filmed through a thermal lens, she shines brightly in the darkness, symbolizing a glimmer of humanity amidst the surrounding darkness. The girl, likely of Jewish descent, risks her life to provide solace to the Jewish captives transported by the Nazis. Her actions resonate as a powerful testament to resilience and compassion even in the darkest of times.

The Departure of Hedwig's Mother At Auschwitz

Hedwig's mother - The Zone of Interest 2023 - A24, Film4
Image Credit: A24 | Film4

Hedwig's mother's abrupt departure from Auschwitz unfolds as a consequence of the unbearable horrors next door. Initially supportive of the family's distorted dream home, she succumbs to the nightly torment of screams and smoke. This underscores the emotional toll exacted by the proximity to Auschwitz's horrors, even on those who initially embraced the family's warped version of normalcy.

Rudolf's Dry Heaving

Rudolf's haunting dry heaving at the conclusion of "The Zone of Interest" intertwines with dual layers of significance.

Rudolf Dry heaving - The Zone of Interest 2023 - A24, Film4
Image Credit: A24 | Film4

Firstly, the physical toll: living just outside Auschwitz exposed him to its grim realities, leading to potential health issues. His visit to a Berlin doctor during his absence hints at the impact of the contaminated air and water surrounding his family's home. This not only foreshadows potential health challenges for them but symbolizes the pervasive reach of Auschwitz's horrors.

Secondly, the dry heaving serves as a metaphor for the vileness within Rudolf. It reflects any residual humanity recoiling from his heinous crimes. As the orchestrator of Auschwitz's atrocities, Rudolf grapples with the monstrous reality of his actions, and the physical act becomes a symbolic purging of the moral stain within him.

The Significance Of The Present Day Museum Scene (Flash Forward)

The present-day museum (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum) scene serves as a commentary on the failure of the Nazi Party's vision. Rudolf's gaze down a dark hallway, juxtaposed with the museum's preservation of artifacts, symbolizes the divergent paths humanity can take. The museum stands as a defiant testament to the Holocaust victims, refuting the Nazis' delusional vision of eradicating the Jewish people from history. Despite the darkness orchestrated by individuals like Rudolf Höss, humanity persists in acknowledging and commemorating the victims, ensuring their memory endures.

Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Present day - The Zone of Interest 2023 - A24, Film4
Image Credit: A24 | Film4

Returning to Rudolf's descent down the stairs, the film hints at his internal struggle, marked by retching. As he gazes into a corridor fading into darkness, viewers are confronted with the inescapable reality of his legacy. The juxtaposition of the serene homestead and the inferno of Auschwitz underlines the insidious impact of breathing in the ashes that permeate the air.

The film concludes with an unyielding shot of empty space, plunging the audience into a silent, sobering reflection. There is no resolution, only a stark portrayal of the complicity of evil and society's inclination to brush aside horrors for the sake of mundane lives.

What does "The Zone of Interest's" Ending Mean?

"The Zone of Interest" masterfully paints the ongoing pursuits and selfish considerations of the Höss family against the canvas of their so-called idyllic reality, tainted by the horrors underpinning it. The film humanizes Rudolf and the Nazis by focusing solely on family and home life, depicting them as both monstrous executioners and strangely relatable individuals.

Rudolf Höss smokes near Nazi symbol at the table - The Zone of Interest 2023 - A24, Film4
Image Credit: A24 | Film4

The haunting impression left by the film mirrors the inescapable screams and smoke within the Höss household. It reinforces the absence of humanity in characters who, despite their inhumanity, successfully block out the realities of Auschwitz for personal well-being—a poignant metaphor for the broader dehumanization during the Holocaust.

Director Glazer strategically avoids graphic depictions, opting for a slow and mundane pace, inviting audiences to share the same state of mind as the Höss family—willfully ignoring the genocide happening next to them. The dual narrative, where what is heard holds equal importance to what is seen, becomes a powerful storytelling device.

Rudolf Höss' heinous crime against humanity in flash forward Museum scene - The Zone of Interest 2023 - A24, Film4
Image Credit: A24 | Film4

The film's concluding scenes, particularly Rudolph's descent into darkness and the flash-forward to modern-day Auschwitz, offer a profound interpretation. Rudolph's body seems to acknowledge what his mind refuses—that his legacy in the war is not the triumphant narrative he envisioned. The flash-forward, inspired by Glazer's visit to Auschwitz, reveals that Höss's work is remembered not as a glorious victory but as a heinous crime against humanity.

Rudolph Höss, though not admitting his sins in the film, experiences a moment of visceral guilt, manifested through his retching. The juxtaposition of his perceived legacy with the reality depicted in the museum workers tending to Auschwitz's memory serves as a stark reminder that even the architects of such atrocities are not immune to the weight of their actions.

The Auditory Canvas of Evil

In "The Zone of Interest," sound emerges as a vital thread, weaving together the film's sobering narrative. While the visual aesthetics may lure you with beauty and subtlety, the soundscape plunges you into the harrowing depths of Auschwitz, delivering an unfiltered portrayal of evil and banality.

Gunfire echoes, screams pierce the air, and a low industrial hum permeates every frame—a haunting symphony of suffering orchestrated by the machinery employed in mass executions and body burnings. These sounds, seemingly innocuous, penetrate the core of the film, sparing no one, not even the protective barrier around the Höss family home.

The film ingeniously separates the characters and viewers from the typical imagery associated with Holocaust-set films. Instead, it narrates two conflicting stories simultaneously. The brutal horrors of Auschwitz serve as the grim backdrop to a seemingly ordinary domestic drama, creating a dissonance that is both unsettling and thought-provoking.

As Höss ascends the ranks and faces relocation, the disconcerting truth emerges—his wife resents leaving what they perceive as their dream life amidst such evil. This bleak revelation forces us to confront the horrifying idea that one could find solace surrounded by such malevolence.

The gunshots and screams, once stark symbols of lives being extinguished in real-time, meld into the background noise of birds chirping. This dissonance between the visible and the audible becomes the film's poignant commentary on the banality of evil. It starkly illustrates how the most grotesque human behaviors lose their shock value when treated as mundane, normal facets of life.

"The Zone of Interest" shatters the notion that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were inhumanly cruel monsters. Instead, it boldly asserts that they were ordinary people who, when faced with the opportunity, grew indifferent and uncaring, choosing personal benefit over morality. This disquieting reminder forces us to confront the banality of evil, recognizing that the most perilous aspect lies in its ability to masquerade as the norm, subtly creeping into the fabric of our existence.

Watch "The Zone of Interest" on Amazon Prime Video.

The Zone of Interest (2023) Ending Explained Hidden Layers & Symbolism

Author: Richie Davis

Author/Writer - Richie Davis

Introducing Richie Davis! Armed with a Bachelor's in Journalism, Richie's career journey has been a reel adventure. From editing videos to crafting compelling narratives, he's now our go-to guru for all things cinematic. When he's not busy diving into the deep end of Movie mysteries, you'll find him swimming through the latest releases or binge watching TV Shows, dissecting flicks like a true Entertainment detective.

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