The verdant and blooming garden outside the family home in The Zone of Interest, nominated for 2024 Academy Awards including best picture and best director, could appear in some celebrity’s home tour on YouTube. In the yard, the mother swoops her baby down close to sniff various flowers. “This one is phlox,” she says.

But all is not lovely here. Audiences might have a hint from the two minutes of complete darkness that begin this razor-sharp film that something is wrong in this Eden. The family dog sprints anxiously through most of the immaculate shots, grabbing food off the sumptuously set tables and knocking things over. Just over the garden hedge, you can see the puffs of smoke from a train going by. At night, there is a strange red glow on the bedroom walls, and no one seems to be able to sleep.

This is 1944, and the Höss family live in their beautiful home next to the gate of Auschwitz concentration camp, of which Rudolf Höss is the commandant. This part of the story is historical fact: Höss was the real commandant of Auschwitz, responsible for creating an efficient machine for destroying human lives. He later confessed he’d overseen the killing of 3 million people.

But The Zone of Interest, an antiseptic term Nazis used to describe the area around Auschwitz, doesn’t include that kind of historical detail about World War II or the Holocaust. Director Jonathan Glazer, who spent ten years on this project and shot it on location at Auschwitz, knows audiences have seen many such movies and may, by now, be numb to their presentation of those horrors. Instead, he drops the audience straight into the Höss family life as they swim and eat birthday cake. Only slowly do we absorb the darkness behind the “life we’ve always dreamed of,” as Höss’s wife, Hedwig, describes it.

This is a horror movie, not a historical epic. The film shows no violence, which makes it all the more disturbing and unforgettable. It’s important to watch with a high-fidelity audio setup because the family’s picnics and play are peppered with distant gunshots and screams. Like many films about the Holocaust, Zone is an examination of evil and the corruption of human hearts—but in an unusual way for our cultural moment.

The last few years have seen an explosion of stories exploring how a villain became evil—think Cruella, Joker, or the Star Wars prequels. The true crime genre, too, is often more fascinated with the backstory of serial killers than with the stories of their victims. We have become accustomed to watching evil deeds explained, contextualized, maybe even justified.

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Zone is radical in its total disinterest in Höss’s backstory. It doesn’t explain his evil with a difficult childhood or a life-changing trauma. Evil deeds themselves seem to turn this family evil—and it is the entire family that’s corrupted, even the children. As Ecclesiastes 7:7 (ESV) notes, “Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart.”

As the story progresses, we start to see the many ways the family’s wrongdoing has deranged them, down to the way the children play together. The murders in the camp are unseen but wreaking havoc everywhere. I was reminded of a passage from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in which the former slave, abolitionist icon, and preacher was not preoccupied with the psychology or backstory of slaveholders. Instead, he examines how slavery not only brought evil into his life but corrupted the hearts of his masters too.

When Douglass is sold to a new mistress who had never owned a slave before, he recalls that when he met her, she was “a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings.” “But alas!” he continued:

This kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.

The inverse of this heavy tale is Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, which tells the true story of an Austrian farmer who refused to fight for Nazi Germany. A Hidden Life also begins with a family in a kind of Eden. But where the family in Zone gains the world and loses their souls, the family of A Hidden Life sees their world fall apart, while their souls remain free. “Darkness is not dark to you,” the Christian farmer prays as he is beaten in a jail cell.

Zone’s darkness is very dark. It is an accurate depiction of its moment, when most Germans did not resist Adolf Hitler, but it also offers a glimpse of an alternative virtuous life via two night-vision sequences that are based on the true story of a 12-year-old who was part of the Polish resistance. These portions of the horror film are fleeting and too short—can’t we see more of that?

But that is not what the characters themselves seek: “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt” (Psalm 14:3, ESV). In The Zone of Interest, virtue is as rare as those glimpses in the night.

Emily Belz is a staff writer at Christianity Today.