The Zone of Interest Reminds Us How Easy It Is to Ignore a Genocide on Your Doorstep

Hear no evil, see no evil.

by Juliet Jacques

26 February 2024

a family plays in their garden, with children playing in the swimming pool as adults watch on. behind the wall, tall grey blocks loom
The Höss family enjoy their idyll in the shadow of Auschwitz in Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest. Photo: A24

Less than a month since its UK release, British director Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest has already garnered numerous plaudits and deservedly so. The film is loosely adapted from the (not especially highly rated) 2014 novel by Martin Amis, who died less than 24 hours before the film’s premiere at Cannes last year, where it won the Grand Prix. Its success is deserved: the film is both an aesthetic tour de force and a timely corrective to the west’s wilful ignorance about the genocide in Gaza.

Set in 1943, the year Germany began transporting Hungarian Jews and Romani gypsies to the camp en masse, the film chronicles the efforts of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (after whom Operation Höss was named) to build a life for his wife and children within metres of the death camp as its sights, sounds and smells encroach on their idyll.

With its exterior shots filmed just outside the camp and its interior ones in a reconstruction of the Höss house (rather than the original, which still stands), The Zone of Interest strips Amis’s novel, a story told by three narrators about a Nazi officer who has fallen in love with the camp’s commandant’s wife, to focus exclusively on a single family. It is best when it depicts the claustrophobia that engulfs the Höss home even after they have thoroughly normalised the situation: the opening swimming pool scene where we catch a brief glimpse of one of the camp buildings; casual conversations between Rudolf’s wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and her maids about underwear they’ve taken from Jews “on the other side of the wall”; their children’s complaints about getting gas in their eyes.

There is little in the way of recognisable Holocaust tropes, besides an early scene showing Höss and others discussing how the chambers will work and the odd “heil Hitler”. In this sense, the film is the diametric opposite of a work such as Elem Klimov’s infamous Come and See (1985), with its unflinching child’s-eye view of a massacre on the Eastern Front. Klimov confronts his audience with a long, close-up of SS officers rounding up Belarusian villagers into a church and then burning it down, a horror that viewers may not have known about. Glazer, able to assume basic knowledge of the Holocaust, keeps everything implicit, sticking to the register of a minor family drama.

What makes the film, as Ed Luker writes for Mubi, is that there is no conventional narrative development. The Höss family has been conditioned to ignore any incident that might induce pangs of morality, their prosperity increasingly bound up in their ability – their willingness is never in doubt – to ignore the mounting horrors. This gives the film a distinctly uneventful quality. It also transfers guilt to the audience, which watches the Höss family go about their lives as plumes of smoke rise from the garden wall.

Johnnie Burn and Mica Levi’s score does much to sublimate this suppressed guilt, right from the haunting first shot of a black screen against birdsong (Glazer builds the tension so slowly that it’s a shame to go into The Zone of Interest knowing its premise – indeed, he could have taken even longer establishing it). Dogs barking, faint screams, a whirring drone as a shot of a red flower fades into blood red, and especially a low-level hiss as a girl plays the piano – Burn and Levi’s use of sound evokes the genocide more subtly but just as starkly as any testimony in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) or Primo Levi’s If This is a Man.

Ironically, the film becomes even more claustrophobic when it moves beyond the confines of the family home, as Höss is dispatched to Berlin while his family stays behind (he had invited them to join, but Hedwig insists on staying, determined to hang onto her hard-won lebensraum). At this point the film shifts to a familiar wartime mode: the combatant desperate to be reunited with his wife and children. Usually, we would identify with the homesick soldier, but he is no regular soldier. There’s a brief nod to Hannah Arendt as Höss learns that Eichmann will be giving operational orders for Hungarian Jews to be deported, and this leads to him being sent home, delightedly calling Hedwig to tell her about the operation being named after him.

To the end, The Zone of Interest is studiously dispassionate: Höss pays for joyless sex in his wife’s absence and then leaves Berlin. Glazer cuts to the cleaners at the present-day Auschwitz Museum cleaning cabinets full of murdered people’s suitcases with similar dispassion, with the sound of sprays and vacuum cleaners consequently becoming just as harrowing as the screams we heard from 1943.

The Zone of Interest manages to explore questions about who and what enables such atrocities with ruthless efficiency, although in focusing purely on one German family, it steers clear of any suggestions about similar collusion on the parts of the local population – the film was co-produced with the Polish Film Institute during the premiership of Andrzej Duda, whose Law and Justice party has been keen to whitewash Polish complicity in the Holocaust. But the Nazis’ atrocities were made possible not only by those giving orders, nor by those carrying them out. The Zone of Interest makes brutally clear that witnesses, convinced that what is happening should not concern them, are complicit, too.

In Western societies, the worst horrors, from the Amritsar massacre to the destruction of Falluja, have until recently been committed out of sight of the domestic population. In the age of the internet, we are all the Höss family: the genocide in Gaza is being broadcast in real-time, its continuation dependent on our preparedness to ignore it, as The Zone of Interest producer James Wilson pointed out when the film recently won a Bafta. It seems hard to imagine the type of people who will move into settlements in the conquered Gaza Strip if Israel gets its way, but it’s all too easy to believe that people will move there and build their own haunted paradises. The Zone of Interest reminds us that it is only by breaking out of solipsism and risking ourselves that we can stop such atrocities from happening again and again.

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic.


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