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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘The Zone of Interest,’ ‘Freud’s Last Session,’ and a whole lot more

This week, director Jonathan Glazer provides a stark reminder of the banality of genocide, and Anthony Hopkins stars as the father of psychoanalysis opposite Matthew Goode's C. S. Lewis.

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Christian Friedel in “The Zone of Interest”

Nazis, they’re just like us! That, less cheekily stated, has been the point of numerous works of literature and film since shortly after the demise of the Third Reich. Hannah Arendt’s invocation of the “banality of evil,” the 1984 dramatization of The Wannsee Conference, Sinclair Lewis’ novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” and the 1981 made-for-TV movie The Wave are among the many invocations of the premise that imagining the perpetrators of the Holocaust as something other than human only serves to increase the chances that we will be blind to similar threats in the future.

Or the present. As the tides of authoritarianism, Christian Nationalism, and white supremacy surge in this country and others as they haven’t in decades, these sorts of reminders remain obviously relevant. And director Jonathan Glazer, with The Zone of Interest, provides an especially potent and unblinking one. Freely adapted from a Martin Amis novel, it uses the historical figure of Rudolf Höss as a stand-in for every respectable person who, while simply following orders, manages to ignore their complicity in oppression, death, even genocide.

Höss (Christian Friedel) is the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. He lives just outside the walls of the camp with his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller of Anatomy of a Fall) and their five children in a pleasantly appointed home with an expansive garden and even a backyard swimming pool. The fact that the wall is topped with barbed wire, and that guard towers and barracks are visible beyond it, is barely remarked upon. The air is filled with an ambient soundtrack of an industrial, furnace-like dull roar, punctuated every so often by gunfire or the barks of dogs. And yet their domestic life proceeds in a manner more or less recognizable to any middle-class family.

Höss, in fact, as depicted here, has more in common with Don Draper than with Adolf Hitler. He’s interested more in his place in the Nazi hierarchy, in doing his job well, than apparently with any particular animus towards Jews or anyone else behind the wall in his backyard. (Historians say otherwise, and that the real Höss was a longtime National Socialist and a fervent anti-Semite.) Hedwig, while clearly understanding exactly what’s going on behind that wall, shows no qualms about divvying up clothing and other possessions seized from new arrivals with her friends and (Jewish) domestic servants. The children are generally blithe, although the youngest boy occasionally averts his eyes and ears when reality gets too close or too loud.

The plot, such as it is, could be lifted from any corporate melodrama. When Höss is transferred to another camp, Hedwig is distraught and unwilling to abandon the home she has made for her family. He moves without her and embarks on a plan to get transferred back to Auschwitz, which gets a boost when the decision is made to import several hundred thousand Hungarian Jews in 1944.

After establishing this primary, hauntingly shot, setup, however, Glazer can’t seem to decide what to do with it. He tosses in a few surreal, night-vision-style scenes with grotesque soundtracks, in which a young girl gathers and then distributes apples. He adds a present-day coda. Neither is necessary, and a simpler, purely naturalistic approach may have been more effective.

That said, the performances of Freidel and Hüller are compelling in their characters’ generally joyless adherence to duty and rigor. In some ways, Nazism was simply the extreme extension of philosophies already present in the corporatist doctrines of Henry Ford and the American tradition of enforced racial purity. The Zone of Interest emphasizes the ways that a blinkered adherence to the first of those can lead to the willful ignorance of, and indeed the participation in, the horrors compelled by the second. (Opens on Thursday, Jan. 18, at the Hollywood Theatre and Cinema 21.)

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ALSO OPENING

Freud’s Last Session: To the vast roster of historical icons he has played (Pope Benedict, Alfred Hitchcock, John Quincy Adams, Pablo Picasso, Richard Nixon, Adolf Hitler, Yitzhak Rabin) Anthony Hopkins can now add Sigmund Freud. And of course he does a damned fine job of it, mixing the Viennese accent and manners of the father of psychoanalysis with his own trademark hesitancies and breathy half-chuckles to craft a convincing Freud.

This speculative piece based on Mark St. Germain’s stage play imagines a meeting on September 4, 1939, between Freud, then living in exile in London and terminally ill with oral cancer, and the author and theologian C. S. Lewis (who, naturally, Hopkins himself played in 1995’s Shadowlands). Here, Matthew Goode is Lewis, who has been expressly summoned by Freud to debate the existence of God. Meanwhile, Freud’s daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries) and her girlfriend Dorothy (Jodi Balfour) wrestle with Anna’s unwavering attachment to her father and whether they should inform him of their relationship.

This isn’t the first effort by writer-director Matt Brown to turn academic debate into engaging cinema, but, as with his 2015 math drama The Man Who Knew Infinity, he largely succeeds, thanks to Hopkins and Goode’s give-and-take chemistry and the way Brown’s screenplay incorporates each man’s biography into the story. (Yes, this does mean we get flashbacks to Lewis’s friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien.) Not the flashiest of films, but one that engages seriously with the weightiest of topics in an entertaining way. (Opens Friday, Jan. 19, at Regal Fox Tower, Salem Cinema, Metro Cinemas, and other area theaters.)

I.S.S.: The director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has had a varied career, moving from documentaries such as the acclaimed Blackfish and the unjustly undistributed The Grab to fiction films including the Casey Affleck-Jason Segel buddy flick Our Friend and, now, this sci-fi indie set on the International Space Station. The three Americans on the crew (including Ariana DuBose and Chris Messina) wind up in a cat-and-mouse game with the three Russians when war apparently breaks out between the two nations down on Earth. Necessarily claustrophobic but inventively shot, the movie eventually succumbs to its own thin premise but there are some engaging moments along the way. (Opens Thursday, Jan. 18, at Living Room Theaters, Regal Fox Tower, and other area theaters.)

Driving Madeleine: Movies about people chauffeuring other people can be mostly divided into moralistic apologies for racism (Driving Miss Daisy, Green Book), parables about class division (Parasite), or stories of unexpected friendship between superficially different people (Drive My Car). Driving Madeleine is a thoroughly Gallic version of the latter, in which a down-on-his-luck, grumpy cabbie (Dany Boon), is hired to ferry an elderly woman named Madeleine (Line Renaud) around Paris. She proceeds to relate her life story, which includes a wartime affair with an American serviceman, single motherhood, and an abusive husband, while teaching him a bit about letting go of his anger. The 95-year-old Renaud, who made her film debut as a cabaret singer in 1946’s The Devil and the Angel, is a spry inspiration, but the movie around her is pretty standard stuff. (Opens on Friday, Jan. 19, at the Living Room Theaters and the Kiggins Theatre)

The End We Start From: Jodie Comer stars in this British drama about a woman who gives birth to her first child just as climate-change-induced flooding turns London into a disaster area. Joel Fry (Our Flag Means Death) and Benedict Cumberbatch co-star. (Opens Thursday, Jan. 18, at Regal Fox Tower, Vancouver Plaza, and Evergreen Parkway)

Cult Killer: Antonio Banderas looks to be scraping the bottom of the barrel as he co-stars with Alice Eve as a pair of private investigators on the trail of a serial killer targeting a wealthy family…with secrets! (Opens Thursday, Jan. 18 at Regal Division, Cascade, and Movies on TV)

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Founders Day: A masked killer stalks teenagers in this slasher film set during a New England town’s tricentennial. (Opens Thursday, Jan. 18, at Regal Division, Cascade, and Bridgeport Village)

ALSO THIS WEEK

Black God, White Devil: A brand-new restoration of this rarely-seen 1964 landmark of the Brazilian Cinema Novo movement gets a one-night showing in Portland. It’s a scathing portrait of class warfare, religious hypocrisy, and the desperation of life in the country’s desolate northeast. (Monday, Jan. 22, Hollywood Theatre)

Occupied City: Director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Hunger, Small Axe) takes a huge formal experiment with this four-hour documentary that takes a detailed tour of present-day locations in Amsterdam connected to the city’s occupation by the Nazis during World War II, counterposed against the state of things during the COVID pandemic lockdown. (Friday, Jan. 19, Tomorrow Theater)

An Oregon Story: Saving Our Beaches Farmland, and More: This documentary presented by 1,000 Friends of Oregon explains and celebrates the state’s innovative land-use policies, and will be followed by a Q&A and panel discussion. (Opens Friday at the Darkside Cinema in Corvallis; also screens on Sunday, Jan. 21, at the Hollywood Theatre and the Salem Cinema)

Why Am I Trans?: The premiere of this 60-minute performative documentary by director Alethia Torres will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker. (Sunday, Jan, 21, Hollywood Theatre)

REVIVALS

Thursday

  • King of New York [1990] (Hollywood Theatre)

Friday

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  • Daughters of the Dust [1991] (5th Avenue Cinemas, through Sunday)
  • E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial [1982] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Lolita [1962] (Eugene Art House, through Thursday)
  • Mission: Impossible [1996] (Cinemagic; on 35mm; also Sunday and Tuesday)
  • The Thing [1982] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Welcome to the Dollhouse [1995] (Hollywood; benefit for Stumptown Strays Dog Rescue)

Saturday

  • Cool as Ice [1991] (Hollywood)
  • Edward Scissorhands [1990] (Hollywood)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1978] (Cinema 21)
  • One Hour Photo [2002] (Cinemagic; on 35mm; also Monday and Thursday]
  • RRR [2022] (Hollywood)
  • Showgirls [1995] (Tomorrow Theater)
  • SLC Punk! [1998] (Cinemagic; on 35mm; also Sunday and Wednesday)

Sunday

  • Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (subtitled) [2001] (Cinema 21, Eugene Art House)
  • Spy Kids [2001] (Tomorrow Theater)

Monday

  • Charlie’s Angels [2000] (Hollywood)

Tuesday

  • Alligator [1980] (Hollywood; on 35mm)
  • Kansas City Confidential [1952] (Darkside Cinema)

Wednesday

  • Blade [1998] (Hollywood; on 35mm)

DISC PICK

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Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

The Ballad of Little Jo: It’s fascinating to rewatch director Maggie Greenwald’s 1993 indie Western, which was ahead of its time in deconstructing gender stereotypes. Based on a true story, it stars Suzy Amis as a woman cast out by her wealthy family who disguises herself as a man to make a life for herself in the rugged Wild West of the 1880s. The supporting cast includes Ian McKellen in his first American film, Heather Graham in a pre-Boogie Nights role, and René Auberjonois in an explicit nod to Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The movie was stunningly shot by Declan Quinn, and looks great on this new Blu-Ray edition remastered from the original 35mm negative. Like so many female filmmakers who had initial success, Greenwald got vanishingly few second chances, although her 2000 feature Songcatcher is worth seeking out. More recently, she has worked in television, with her most recent credit coming for a Hallmark Christmas movie. She offers an informative commentary track on the disc, and Amis (now married to James Cameron) reflects warmly on her experience in a filmed interview.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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