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Oscar-nominee Jonathan Glazer's huge impact on British culture before Zone of Interest

From iconic music videos to legendary TV adverts, the British filmmaker is behind some of the most eye-catching pieces of visual storytelling in recent years

Oscar-nominee Jonathan Glazer has an impressive back catalogue of work. (Getty)
Oscar-nominee Jonathan Glazer has an impressive back catalogue of work. (Getty)

Acclaimed director Jonathan Glazer has been in the entertainment industry for a long time but, when it comes to his movies at least, he's always been on the fringes — until now.

The British filmmaker has received the best reviews of his career for his fourth film, The Zone of Interest, a Holocaust drama that sees the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), try to build a family home next to the atrocity. It has seen him be nominated for multiple awards including five Oscars, with the film being shortlisted for Best Picture and Best Director.

Glazer's rise to fame is not typical for most Oscar-nominated filmmakers. The director began his career in advertising, honing his unique directorial eye while making legendary adverts for Guinness and Stella Artois — commercials that earned him acclaim within the field.

His 'Surfer' commercial for Guinness is regularly cited as one the greatest TV adverts ever, while his 2002 Levis advert 'Odyssey', which sees a couple running through walls, has been homaged in every medium, by Hollywood and even Ant and Dec.

Christian Friedel stars in Jonathan Glazer's Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest. (Alamy)
Christian Friedel stars in Jonathan Glazer's Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest. (Alamy)

During his time as an ad man Glazer wrote and directed several short films, before moving on to an entirely different medium: music videos. The director has worked extensively in the field, using his vision to craft unique videos for bands like Radiohead, Jamiroquai, and Nick Cave.

His first foray into directing music videos came in 1995, the year in which he collaborated with Massive Attack and Blur, for the first he directed Karmacoma and the second The Universal. Both were unique in their tone and style, drawing a lot of inspiration from Stanley Kubrick — a filmmaker Glazer has a clear affection for in his work.

Karmacoma leans heavily into same themes and visuals from The Shining as it follows a group stuck in a hotel plagued by ghosts, while The Universal sees the band act like members of the droogs.

The similarities are something that Glazer wears as a badge of honour, jokingly saying of Kubrick in a 2014 interview with Film School Rejects: “I’ve picked his pockets, really. People politely say 'homage,' but I probably stole his wallet.”

He also helped create one of Jamiroquai's most iconic music videos to date: 1996's Virtual Insanity, in which singer Jay Kay showed off his dance movies in a room with a moving floor. It was simple but effective, something the director continued to utilise in the videos he directed for Radiohead and Thom Yorke's collaboration with UNKLE, Rabbit In Your Headlights.

One notable music video Glazer helmed was for Radiohead's Karma Police, which saw the singer sit in the back of a car which is following a man on the run.

ROME, ITALY - OCTOBER 20: :Jonathan Glazer attends a red carpet for the movie
Jonathan Glazer is the dark horse in this year's Oscars race with his film The Zone of Interest. (Getty Images)

Cutting his teeth in short-form projects proved to be a helpful exercise in shaping his unique style, with the director saying in the same interview: "There’s lots of similarities between the formats, whether short-form or long-form. For me, a short-form is like a sentence and a long-form is like a test. If you’re doing a music video, what is that sentence? Is it a beautiful sentence? When you make a short or a music video, it has to be as fully-formed as a movie."

The filmmaker went into feature film directing in 2000 with the British gangster flick Sexy Beast, a crime caper starring Ray Winstone that went on to become a cult hit of the genre. It has become so beloved since that it's even inspired a prequel TV series on Paramount+.

Catching the rays - Winstone in Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast (Film4)
Jonathan Glazer's directorial debut was in Sexy Beast, which stars Ray Winstone. (Film4)

Full of fast-paced action and shocking characters, Sexy Beast helped put Glazer on the map in the film industry and quickly led to him working on his second film: 2004's Birth. Starring Nicole Kidman, Birth follows a widow who is visited by a young child claiming to be a reincarnation of her dead husband.

Less well received as his debut, the film, per a chat Winstone had with The Independent, was Glazer's first experience working with studios and how having multiple voices on a project can lead to a dilution of the director's overall vision. It took the director time to return to the format, almost ten years in fact, but that was because it allowed him to make films with people who understood his intentions and were passionate about it.

Scarlett Johansson played a deadly extra-terrestrial in 2013's Under The Skin. (Alamy)
Scarlett Johansson played a deadly extra-terrestrial in 2013's Under The Skin. (Alamy)

The filmmaker returned to feature projects in 2013 with Under the Skin, a sci-fi thriller starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien who lands in Glasgow, Scotland. It proved Glazer was comfortable with any genre, making films on his terms that allowed him to bring his unique storytelling to the silver screen.

Speaking in 2014, the director reflected on working on the project with more supportive partners, admitting: "We didn’t have loads of money, but what we had was given to us by people who were supporting what we were trying to achieve. They weren’t like, ‘What do you mean you’re doing that?’ They knew what it was. They enabled it."

LA ZONE D'INTERET THE ZONE OF INTEREST 2023 de Jonathan Glazer Sandra Huller. Prod DB © A24 - Access Entertainment - Film4 - JW Films - Extreme Emotio
Sandra Hüller has received an Oscar nomination for her role in The Zone of Interest. (A24/Alamy)

It took Glazer ten years to return once again with The Zone of Interest, another new genre and something entirely different to what he has done before. It's been heralded for its devastating and haunting storytelling, with Glazer being commended for his intelligent approach to humanity's dark past.

That audiences worldwide are finally taking note of Glazer and his skills as a filmmaker now feels right, given how long he's worked in the industry it's about time he was drawn out of the fringes and into the larger conversation.

The Zone of Interest premieres in UK cinemas on Friday, 2 February.


Read more: The Zone of Interest

The Zone of Interest, review: Jonathan Glazer’s Auschwitz film is horrifying in its banality (The Telegraph, 4 min read)

Nazism seen from the inside by Jonathan Glazer (Euronews, 7 min read)

The Zone Of Interest star: Oscar-nominated Holocaust film is a warning to us all (PA, 3 min read)

The Best Director lineup at the Oscars has a truly international flavour this year (Gold Derby, 5 min read)

Watch the trailer for The Zone of Interest: