The Zone of Interest: The Holocaust film to end all Holocaust films - Hindustan Times
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The Zone of Interest: The Holocaust film to end all Holocaust films

May 01, 2024 08:47 PM IST

With this culmination of all the landmark entries in the genre, Glazer rethinks Holocaust films even as he refuses to let the victimisation of Jews be weaponised in the victimisation of Palestine

On the morning of his birthday, a diligent family man is blindfolded by his two sons and led down the patio steps to the backyard. Gathered outside are his wife and three daughters waiting to surprise him with a present: a shiny new three-seater canoe. He thanks his family for the lovely gesture, offers the first ride to the youngest child, then sings a song to lull the sobbing toddler. Celebrations are cut short by the nanny’s orders to the children to get ready for school. At which point, the milestone man gets on a horse to leave for work, which is literally right next door: a sprawling death factory also known as the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

A scene from The Zone of Interest (A24)
A scene from The Zone of Interest (A24)

The horrors of Holocaust are kept just out of sight in Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest. Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their five children celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, go on picnics and fishing trips, dream of Lebensraum and spa trips to Italy, while a stone’s throw away from their Garden of Eden, hundreds to thousands are killed every day. The boldness of Glazer’s aesthetic gambit lies in how it challenges our own tunnel vision, the conscious mechanisms of which enable us to turn a blind eye to the sights we don’t want to see and tune out the noises we don’t want to hear, walling us off from the death and suffering outside our own backyards.

“Glazer strips the Martin Amis novel so close to the bone, The Zone of Interest doesn’t really qualify as an adaptation.” (Amazon)
“Glazer strips the Martin Amis novel so close to the bone, The Zone of Interest doesn’t really qualify as an adaptation.” (Amazon)

Just as he did with Michel Faber’s novel Under the Skin in his previous feature, Glazer strips the Martin Amis novel (which we will soon come to) so close to the bone, The Zone of Interest doesn’t really qualify as an adaptation. For starters, the camera never enters the camp grounds of Auschwitz. By not crossing the gate, Glazer dares to glean the poignancy of his film and press home the urgency of its message through a profound absence. The absence of a reverse shot isn’t an act of erasure; instead, it prompts us to summon up images from history books and scenes from earlier films already seared into our imagination. No matter the historical accuracy, no reproduction of the horrors can ever be anything more than a poor substitute for reality.

Recognising this, Glazer decides to rethink Holocaust films, how they are made, and how they are seen. While presenting a study into a collective pathology, he allows two films to share the frame. There is the film shown and there is the film heard. The first is a bucolic fantasy of an upper-middle class family: the father loves to go horse riding, take his kids swimming, and read them bedtime stories; the mother entertains guests and tends to the flowers and vegetables in her garden; the children enjoy playing in the backyard pool; and grandma comes to visit. The second is the horror film hidden from view on the other side of the concrete walls, a masterclass in sound design exposing the stark reality that the Hösses have pushed to the periphery of their awareness. Does the family not see the watchtower looming just beyond the backyard, the crematorium smokestacks bellowing out clouds of grey, and the orange hues of the evening sky from the bedroom window? Of course, they do. Do they not smell the death poisoning the air? Of course, they do. Do they not hear the crackle of gunfire, the cries of prisoners, the barks of guards, the rumble of trains arriving with human cargo, and the oppressive hum of the death factory? Of course, they do, but they choose to ignore.

For the entirety of the film, the violence is kept offscreen. Yet, it is all-pervasive. Even peaceful domestic scenes in the Höss household are interrupted by disembodied sounds and saturated with sinister suggestions. When a local Polish deliveryman wheelbarrows groceries, fur coats and jewellery for Hedwig from “Canada”, the packages aren’t coming from Canada the country; “Canada” was a euphemism at the time for warehouses used to store the stolen possessions of inmates on arrival. At night, the eldest Höss isn’t reading a comic book with a flashlight in bed; he is sifting through a collection of gold teeth prised out of the mouths of prisoners. A fishing trip with the kids is brought to an untimely end not by bad weather, but human remains floating downstream. The same human remains fertilise the roses, marigolds and dahlias in Hedwig’s precious garden. When Rudolf and Hedwig have a domestic dispute, it is not over an affair (although a scene of a young woman sent to his office for him to rape suggests it is a late-night routine); it is over Rudolf being promoted as the head of all concentration camps, a job that requires the family to relocate from their bucolic idyll. Rudolf, it turns out, has a natural talent for industrializing mass murder. He and his wife have mastered the art of compartmentalisation. For those benefiting from a bureaucracy of slaughter, wilful blindness, cosy indifference and accommodating silence all came much easier than spirited defiance.

Dehumanising begins with words before images. Consider the title: “The Zone of Interest” referred to the restricted area surrounding the concentration camp. Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) meant killing. Endlösung (Final Solution) described the Nazi plan to eliminate the Jews. Euphemisms were used to obfuscate the truth. In the film, engineers and architects meet with Rudolf in his home office to sell a proposal for a more streamlined killing machine that promises to “load” and “unload” the “pieces” at a higher yield. The monstrous truth of a systematic eradication is dressed in industry-speak. A later high-level meeting about the fate of 7,00,000 Hungarian Jews hints at a bureaucratic wrangle between Rudolf, who wishes to kill them all, and Colonel Gerhard Maurer, the Director of Economic Administration, who wishes to enslave them instead for the sake of war efforts and the Germany economy. Both firmly believe in the same ideology of moral exclusion, but endorse different “final solutions” to the “Jewish question.” Even in an industry of murder, each manager has their own bottom line.

As suggested earlier, Glazer’s film takes so many radical turns away from Amis’s 2014 novel, it’s fair to label the two as entirely different beasts. The novel’s six chapters are split into three sections told from alternating narrative standpoints: the first belongs to Golo “Desk Murderer” Thomsen, a Nazi playboy and a nepo-nephew of Hitler’s personal secretary Martin Bormann; the second is Paul “Old Boozer” Doll, the caricaturish camp commandant; the third is Szmul, the “infinitely disgusting and infinitely sad” head of a Jewish crew charged with leading the arriving prisoners to the gas chambers. Known as Sönderkommandos, these crews forced to cooperate under the threat of death, occupied a liminal space between victim and accomplice — a “grey zone” as Holocaust survivor Primo Levi termed it. When Paul learns of a secret love affair between his wife Hannah and Golo, he orders Szmul to kill her. Amis employs a darkly satiric tone to call attention to the perverse absurdity of those carrying on affairs and enacting revenge plots amid endless atrocities. The disgust that these petty concerns of the Nazis provoke in the reader is a critical part of the book’s underlying calculus.

If Glazer’s film can be considered an adaptation, it is in name, setting, and some of the same feelings it provokes in the viewer. A more dutiful adaptation may have undercut the film’s resonance, which has only deepened since the Israel-Palestine conflict. With Paul and Hannah stripped of their fictional masks, the film dispassionately fixates on the daily routines of a real-life Nazi couple seeking upward mobility. Glazer’s choice to shoot their domestic drama with a network of hidden cameras keeps us at a clinical remove, echoing the Hösses’ own distance from the prisoners beyond the wall. This observational detachment creates the effect of watching a reality show. On occasions when Hedwig is showing off her house or gossiping with the other Nazi spouses, it is not unlike watching an episode of The Real Housewives of Auschwitz.

In an afterword to his book, Amis reflected on the ironic allure of a subject beyond description: “Very cautiously I submit that part of the exceptionalism of the Third Reich lies in its unyieldingness, the electric severity with which it repels our contact and our grip.” Visit a bookstore: you will likely find a whole section of novels casting an unrepresentable event as survival thrillers, love stories, and coming-of-age dramas. At the box office, history lovers and Oscar voters cannot resist a good feel-bad Holocaust film. To slightly paraphrase a quip by the former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban, “There’s still no business like Shoah bus

Striped prison uniforms and sewn serial number of Holocaust victims tortured during Nazi terror in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during World War II (Konoplytska/Shutterstock)
Striped prison uniforms and sewn serial number of Holocaust victims tortured during Nazi terror in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during World War II (Konoplytska/Shutterstock)

iness.” The challenge for writers and filmmakers is to confront the unrepresentable without vulgarization.

But can a work be aesthetically wrought and morally rigorous? Can the duty of art be in harmony with the duty of memory? The debate over what can and what shouldn’t be shown resurfaces with each new film. Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel advised against trivializing Holocaust memory. “Only those who lived it in their flesh and in their minds can possibly transform their experience into knowledge. Others, despite their best intentions, can never do so,” he wrote in a 1989 New York Times column. Claude Lanzmann agreed when he made his nine-hour opus Shoah (1985). Convinced no archival footage, fictional representation or re-enactment could ever rival eyewitness testimony, he let the recounted memories of survivors tell the story. Decades earlier, Alain Resnais had taken a different, much more economical approach in Night and Fog(1956). Past and present, history and memory collided in a 32-minute short. Resnais’s use of narration drew viewers close to the truth of a genocide living on as ghosts in the abandoned camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek. Night and Fog and Shoah could be seen as the palimpsest of Holocaust memory, together forging the complex narrative of the victims and survivors’ experiences.

By contrast, many of the films that came after the two have been guilty of simplifying the Holocaust into what Art Spiegelman rightly dubbed as “Holo-kitsch”: stories centring on exceptional heroes, distorting the truth to insist on the indomitability of the human spirit, and finding a happy ending in a tragedy beyond such sentiment. For generations of film-loving audiences since the mid-90s, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) has been their Holocaust 101. But its pristine black-and-white retelling of the story about a German war profiteer-turned-unlikely saviour presses for a teary uplift, an attempt at catharsis that rings false to this day. Not as false or as misguided as Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), in which a father saves his son’s innocence by tricking him into thinking the ghetto is a game, the terrible sacrifice it demands in the end sanitised into a bittersweet triumph. Taika Waititi Disney-fied the Holocaust further in Jojo Rabbit (2019). Hitler is a child’s goofy imaginary friend and most Nazis are cartoonish figures who have suppressed their own inner child in a film that dances on the edge of bad taste throughout, until falling off entirely with an ending that sees a Hitler Youth cadet and an Anne Frank proxy shaking a leg to David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

László Nemes’s The Son of Saul (2015) could be seen as an adaptation of Amis’s The Zone of Interest, if the focus was entirely on Szmul. Amidst all the chaos of the Auschwitz death camp, the camera boxes us into the tunnel vision of a Sonderkommando as he races to give a Jewish burial to a young boy he believes to be his son. This formal tactic overhauls the “grey zone” into a first-person video game through the nine circles of hell, without ever truly putting us in the headspace of a man forced to compromise and collaborate with his oppressors. In his first appearance in the novel, Szmul recounts an old story about a king who commissioned a magic mirror that reflected the viewer’s soul. No one could look into it without turning away. Auschwitz, says Szmul, is that mirror. The only difference is “you can’t turn away.” The camp shows you for exactly who you are and what you are capable of. By switching the point-of-view from victims to perpetrators, Glazer’s The Zone of Interest proposes a line of inquiry that challenges the traditional modes of Holocaust narratives. The film brings us into its frame, revealing our own potentiality as perpetrators. The austerity of its approach contrasts earlier renderings of the Holocaust as a spectacle for an audience too comfortable in their dissociation and looking to reinforce their moral righteousness.

Jonathan Glazer attends “The Zone of Interest” premiere during the 67th BFI London Film Festival at The Royal Festival Hall in London, England, on October 12, 2023. (Fred Duval / Shutterstock)
Jonathan Glazer attends “The Zone of Interest” premiere during the 67th BFI London Film Festival at The Royal Festival Hall in London, England, on October 12, 2023. (Fred Duval / Shutterstock)

In Under the Skin, an alien seductress led men into an amniotic lake that literally disembodied them, shrinking them into floating sacks of skin. The Zone of Interest shares the same concerns about dehumanising the Other, or that which is alien to us. Both films begin with a sequence that disorients and orients at the same time. The opening of Under the Skin builds from darkness into light, abstracting the birth of its alien protagonist. The empty black screen that prefaces The Zone of Interest is not a womb however. It’s a void. It’s a mirror that shows us who we really are. And we can’t turn away. We can’t look at it without being implicated in it. Glazer aims for a foreboding experience, similar to what architect Daniel Libeskind had in mind with his concrete “voids” in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, to represent a history “which can never be exhibited.” The black screen lingers for around three minutes over Mica Levi’s haunting overture, an invitation to listen closer. Atonal drones give way to chirpy birdsong as the film reveals its first image: the Höss family sunbathing and enjoying a lakeside picnic without a care, like the whole world isn’t at war.

Glimpse through the reviews of The Zone of Interest: the phrase “banality of evil” will likely appear so often as to become banal itself. When Hannah Arendt used the phrase to describe Nazi functionaries like Adolf Eichmann, she might not have imagined it would become a catch-all so frequently misunderstood. The banality, to Arendt, didn’t lie in people like the Hösses enjoying blissful lives next door to a concentration camp, but in how they bought into an ideology and sequestered themselves from the moral consequences at a time when inhumanity had become normalised. Reassuring though it may be to think of the Nazis as a uniquely evil group of fanatics and sociopaths, such a conception betrays a failure of imagination. The Zone of Interest reminds us Nazis were often the most ordinary careerists and opportunists who chose to go along with the orders coming from the top of the bureaucratic chain. As we watch the Hösses go about their lives with shocking unconcern, we are made to question whether the shadow of their folly lurks within us as well. For all it takes for evil to flourish is to accommodate it into the design of our everyday routine. None of us should feel so secure as to believe the Hösses couldn’t just as easily be us today. Glazer’s film stands as a timely check upon our arrogance. “The great tragedy is that human beings did this to other human beings. It’s very convenient for us to try to distance ourselves from (the Hösses) but I think we should be less certain than that,” warned the director. “This is not a museum piece. It needed to be presented with a degree of urgency and alarm.”

After The Zone of Interest won the Oscar for Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Academy Awards, Glazer, who is Jewish, took to the podium to address Israel’s escalating acts of aggression against Palestine. “All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present, not to say look what they did then, but rather look what we do now,” he said. “Our film shows where dehumanisation leads at its worst. It’s shaped all of our past and present.” The backlash was instant. Some detractors misinterpreted his words, some chose to, insisting Glazer was “refuting” his Jewishness. What he meant was he refused to let the victimization of Jews be weaponised in the victimization of Palestine. Decades before the Holocaust, the Zionists had wished to build a Jewish state in Palestine, well aware it was already home to another people. Not long after the liberation of the concentration camps, the Palestinians witnessed the Holocaust being leveraged for the creation of Israel in 1948. The Israelis vowed “Never again”, while evicting Palestinians from their homes and making them political refugees in their own country. Each time there was conflict, Holocaust became a handy political tool to rationalise Israeli expansion. Language again was vital to dehumanisation. Almost all of the global media helped position Israel as a victim state and Palestine as a stateless territory. In reality, the Gaza strip is, as many term it, “the world’s largest open-air prison.” The crime of its roughly 2.2 million residents: to merely exist.

Palestinians inspect their destroyed home after an Israeli air strike in the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 14, 2024. (Anas-Mohammed / Shutterstock)
Palestinians inspect their destroyed home after an Israeli air strike in the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 14, 2024. (Anas-Mohammed / Shutterstock)

Since Hamas’s surprise attack on October 7 last year, Israel has responded with a full-scale assault: the world’s first televised genocide. Hospitals, schools, mosques have all been razed to the ground. The infrastructure and economy have crumbled. Supplies of food, water, medical supplies and electricity are routinely cut off. Civilians, aid workers and journalists have been killed indiscriminately. As of April 11, the death toll stood at 33,545, out of which up to 40 percent is estimated to be children. Millions have been displaced. Yet, there is a reluctance to call it “genocide”, same as when 8,000 Rwandans were being butchered on average every day during the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in 1994. The West’s contrasting responses to the crises in Gaza and Ukraine reeks of double standards. Ukrainians fighting for their peoplehood is praised as valiant, while Palestinians doing the same is equated as genocidal. Palestinians are denounced for employing the same methods of resistance for which the Ukrainians are unfailingly applauded. How does one react to such dehumanisation?

Glazer asks us to look to the example set by Aleksandra Bystroń-Kołodziejczyk, the real-life Polish woman who is shown in the film as a young girl sneaking into construction sites at night to hide apples and pears for the starving prisoners to find. The girl appears twice in sequences filmed with a thermal camera, the destabilising effect of which creates a ghostly reversal of the Edenic garden sequences in the daytime, as if to suggest compassion can only bloom in the negative space of an amoral landscape. An inhuman groan plays over and over, like a ticking clock of approaching evil. One night, the girl finds a piece of sheet music folded inside a tin. The next morning, she plays the notes on a piano, the subtitles transcribing a poetic lament of defiance in the face of oppression, assuming the weight of Jewish testimony in the film.

The Zone of Interest is the Holocaust film to end all Holocaust films, a culmination of all the landmark entries in the genre. Like Night and Fog, it establishes a continuum between the past and the present, two temporal entities retracing each other. Like Shoah, it is structured around an absence, relying on our imagination to fill in the gaps. Like Schindler’s List, it could shape the cultural consciousness about the Holocaust for generations. Like Son of Saul, it keeps us inside a deliberate tunnel vision, but without letting aesthetic choices come at the cost of moral consideration. Above all, it denies viewers the reassuring distance of the past. The transgressions of the Hösses shouldn’t seem so foreign to our being. The Holocaust didn’t begin in the gas chambers. Genocides don’t begin in a vacuum. Nor are they a thing of the past. Just as the Holocaust has left a permanent scar on our history, so will the genocide in Gaza. Despite the endless horrifying images coming in everyday from people on the ground, it is imperative we don’t let the doomscrolling desensitise us to the suffering being inflicted on Palestinians. At the end of Night and Fog, as the camera surveys a camp from a watchtower, the narrator Michel Bouquet wonders: “Who among us keeps watch from this strange watchtower to warn of the arrival of our new executioners? Are their faces really different from our own? With our sincere gaze we survey these ruins, as if the old monster lay crushed forever beneath the rubble. We pretend to take up hope again as the image recedes into the past, as if we were cured once and for all of the scourge of the camps. We pretend it happened all at once, at a given time and place. We turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry.”

Possessions of the dead at Auschwitz. (StockWithMe / Shutterstock)
Possessions of the dead at Auschwitz. (StockWithMe / Shutterstock)

In the Höss household, genocide is diminished to a throwaway threat and an inside joke. All it takes is the tiniest slip-up from a servant for Hedwig to deliver the most chilling notice: “If I wanted, my husband would spread your ashes across the fields of Babice.” At a party for Nazi A-listers and socialites in Berlin, Rudolf fantasises about the logistical challenge of gassing everyone gathered in a ballroom with a high ceiling. As he leaves the party, he pauses on a staircase and retches over and over again, his body struggling to digest what his mind ignores: his repressed humanity. Only nothing comes out. Because the reflex isn’t coming from a place of guilt or regret. How do you expel the sickness of an ideology that has taken over your entire being and soul? When he stares into an empty corridor, the film jumps to present-day Auschwitz, now a museum preserving all that remains of his crimes. Piles of shoes, crutches, suitcases and uniforms are displayed behind glass cases to remember the victims, their photos lining the walls, in rooms and corridors, all routinely dusted, swept, and vacuumed. Rudolf isn’t perturbed by this vision of his legacy. Composing himself, he continues his descent into the depths of hell. Yesterday’s mistakes became today’s memorials. Today’s mistakes will inevitably become tomorrow’s memorials — and movies. It is much easier to look away, to cast aside, to even comply than to resist. But The Zone of Interest urges us to probe into the dark corridors of history, into the cracks of indifference that allow evil to fester, so history doesn’t repeat itself to eternity.

Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore.

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