The Zone of Interest is the finest Shoah film ever made

Instead of telling us what to think, it puts viewers inside the perpetrators’ world to make up our minds

February 29, 2024 17:14

I want to tell you why I think The Zone of Interest may be the best non-documentary film ever made about the Holocaust. But a warning: some readers may want to save this column until after they have seen the film.

Most of Jonathan Glazer’s movie is set in the pretty house and large garden belonging to the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and managed by his wife Hedwig. This is where their four children are being brought up, and Hedwig is proud of it. If you drive out of the house in one direction you come to woods and a river. If you look in the other direction there are the walls and fences and towers of the camp. At night the fires of the crematoria light the sky. During the day gardeners use ash to fertilise Hedwig’s flower borders.

There isn’t really a plot, save that Rudolf is reassigned to the central administration of all the camps in Oranienburg, and Hedwig is upset that she and the family might have to move. There are no onscreen deaths, no gaunt camp labourers, no visual brutality. All of this is conveyed by the soundtrack of the occasional dog barking, sporadic gunshots, a few screams and shouts. It’s a soundtrack you don’t easily forget.

This absence of pictorial suffering has led to some criticism, particularly in the US. The New York Times accused Glazer of producing an arty, hollow work and the film critic of the New Yorker wrote that “Glazer…shrinks from portraying the horrors of the real-life Höss’s character, too, and, as a result, he trivializes them”.

I could not disagree more. Whatever he is doing Glazer isn’t “shrinking”. Or if he is, it’s from the easy and repetitive Hollywood way of telling us exactly what we’re supposed to think — a way which has become such a cliché that it runs off frictionless from our consciousnesses.

The way the film is made you don’t get the easy way out of identifying just with the victims, because you never see them (the closest you get is the silent, terrified maid to the Hösses, who is probably Jewish and survives day to day on sufferance).

What is left to you is to be right there among the perpetrators. Among them but not inside them. There are no close-ups in the whole film. You watch what they do and hear what they say and you make up your own mind. There are ambiguities. When Hedwig tries on a fur coat obviously looted from a Jewish victim of the gas chambers she is part pleased, and part furtive. Rapacity too played a part in the Holocaust.

In the house beside the camp some of the inhabitants and visitors adjust to it more easily than others. The wife’s mother — Höss’s mother-in-law — comes to visit and is initially impressed by the house and garden that her daughter lives in. Then she wonders if Mrs Silberman — the Jewish woman she used to work for — is behind that wall. She begins to drink and her nights are disturbed by the flames and noise of the crematorium. Then, abruptly, she has gone, leaving only a note. She cannot be quite so close to murder. She needs to be further away from it.

Again, you are not told what to think about this. So take another scene towards the end of the film when the older of the two Höss sons, dressed in his Hitler Youth outfit, effectively imprisons his frightened younger brother in a greenhouse.

There seem to be two possibilities. The first is to imagine that the older boy has been brutalised by Nazi ideology or by his proximity to the concentration camp.

But when you think about it you realise that many older brothers have tormented younger brothers in their time, as have many everyday playground bullies. So the second possibility — and I think the most likely — is that the greenhouse scene reminds you of the latent cruelty, which exists within almost all of us.

And this is Glazer’s point. We are all used to identifying with the victim (or less plausibly the rescuer or avenger) in a drama about the Holocaust. But anyone can be a victim, not just Jews, even if we seem the most consistently persecuted. You had only to be a Tutsi, an Armenian, a Bosnian Muslim, a Yazidi to face extermination. You didn’t have to do anything, just exist.

So the far more pertinent question — in fact the vital question — is how could any of us become the perpetrators of inhumanity and mass cruelty to others? Under what conditions might we be beneficiaries like Hedwig, deniers like her mother or active participants like Rudolf? And under the wrong circumstances would we even notice our transition from man to monster?

Embedded is another universal lesson. To do terrible violence to people who are no threat we need to see them as other than ourselves, their families as other than our families, their hopes and fears as other than our hopes and fears. After that we can fertilise our gardens with their ashes.

February 29, 2024 17:14

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive