The Death Camp Nextdoor

Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest

The Zone of Interest tries to reassert the singularity of the Holocaust while reminding us that the monsters who made it possible mostly behaved like ordinary, respectable people.

Never mind the Holocaust.

This should have been clear to attentive moviegoers before the film won the Oscar for Best International Feature at the 2024 Academy Awards. However, director Jonathan Glazer’s controversial acceptance speech left no doubt.

Reading from a prepared statement, he explained that “all our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present, not to say ‘Look what they did then’ but ‘Look what we do now.’ Our film shows where dehumanisation leads at its worst. It shaped all of our past and present.”

Even if Glazer had stopped there, he almost certainly would have faced criticism for suggesting that the Holocaust should serve a figurative purpose. But then he made sure that his words would be excoriated.

“Right now we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an Occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people,” he declared, to considerable applause.

Compared with the mute protest of actors who wore pins advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza, this was strong medicine indeed.

Perhaps that’s why Glazer then tried to soften the blow with an awkward rhetorical question. “Whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack in Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanisation, how do we resist?”

By this point, however, denunciations were inevitable.

The Anti-Defamation League’s social media post about the speech was typical. Calling the director’s comments “reprehensible”,  it took pains to combat the notion that Israel’s actions during the war in Gaza or in the Occupied Territories more generally are on a continuum with the atrocities committed at Auschwitz:

Israel is not hijacking Judaism or the Holocaust by defending itself against genocidal terrorists. Glazer’s comments at the #Oscars are both factually incorrect & morally reprehensible. They minimise the Shoah & excuse terrorism of the most heinous kind.

Although harsh criticism will be meted out to anybody who questions Israel’s understanding of self-defence, the fact that it was being directed at the director of a film about the Holocaust makes it particularly noteworthy.

Curiously, nobody denouncing Glazer after the Academy Awards seemed to take issue with his film.

For a film about the Holocaust, The Zone of Interest is strikingly reluctant to represent Auschwitz’s Jewish victims directly.

We hear screams in the distance, see smoke rising from the complex’s chimneys, and see some of the money, clothing, and jewellery expropriated from the prisoners, but we never see them.

It’s almost as though the film respected the Jewish taboo against graven images.

Instead, we get an extended character study of Rudolf Höss, the concentration camp’s longest-serving commandant, his wife Hedwig, and their five children.

Hannah Arendt’s endlessly cited formulation about the banality of evil suits the film perfectly.

We see the Hösses repeatedly block out what is happening in the vast complex next door to their lovely modern home.

Even when their defences temporarily fail, as when Höss finds human remains in the river where he is fly fishing, the discomfort visible on their faces is gone as soon as a passing cloud.

We understand the depth of this fortress mentality when the commandant’s mother-in-law comes for a visit.

When Hedwig shows her mother the walled garden that she has painstakingly cultivated for three years on what was once an empty field, the first shot is from an angle that shows the camp buildings rising behind it.

It’s clear that from where the mother and daughter are standing, they can only see the garden wall and not what lies behind it. We perceive the brutal contrast that they would rather not face.

Later in this remarkable scene, however, Hedwig’s mother pivots around and asks whether she is looking at the camp wall.

Hedwig confirms that it is. “Yes, that’s the camp wall,” read the English subtitles. “We planted more vines at the back to grow and cover it.”

There are nuances to the original German that get lost here.

What Hedwig actually says is, “Also da wir haben auch noch Weinen gepflanzt damit das zuwächst damit man nicht mehr so sieht.”

While this statement could literally refer to the concrete wall, the kind that people with walled gardens would naturally want to cover with vines, it also communicates the desire to no longer see the camp beyond that wall.

Hedwig is hoping to live long enough at Auschwitz that the wall disappears entirely, a discomfiting prospect.

When the mother goes on to ask, “Maybe Esther Silberman is over there?” referring to a woman she used to clean for, Hedwig seems frazzled.

Even if her mother doesn’t seem to mind discriminating against Jews very much – she complains that she wasn’t able to get Silberman’s curtains at the street auction of the family’s belongings – she hasn’t learned to reduce them to an anonymous, dehumanised mass yet.

Later, we see Hedwig’s mother wake up at night and look out the window at the sky turned orange by the fires at the camp.

The sight seems to bother her, an impression confirmed by the fact that she leaves early in the morning without saying goodbye to her daughter.

Even if she is an Antisemite and loyal to the Third Reich, she finds her daughter’s “paradise” next to the camp too much to bear.

The Zone of Interest would be difficult to watch if it simply documented the Höss family’s everyday life in this manner.

But the decision to include brief sequences that depart from their timeline gives the film a surreal dimension that amplifies our distress.

It both opens and closes with entirely black screens that draw our attention to the eerie soundtrack. The screen fades to white and red at two crucial junctures.

The end of the picture features a kind of slow montage in which shots of Höss retching as he descends the stairs of a government building are contrasted with disturbingly matter-of-fact footage showing workers cleaning displays at Auschwitz’s museum.

Most jarring are two sequences featuring a teenage girl carefully placing apples and pears in a scarred industrial landscape.

Shot with a heat-sensitive camera that makes it seem as though we are looking at a black-and-white negative, this initially mysterious content is juxtaposed with a voice-over in which Höss reads fairy tales to his two daughters.

Glazer devoted the end of his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards to celebrating the memory of the person on whom these two sequences were based, Aleksandra Bystroń-Kolodziejczyk, whom he described as “the girl who glows in the film as she did in life”.

An important witness to the Holocaust, Bystroń-Kolodziejczyk would leave food out in places where Auschwitz’s prisoners could find it – this explains the apples and pears – and transport messages between them and the outside world.

Although undoubtedly worthy of recognition, the way the figure of this brave young woman intrudes on the film’s narrative opens it up to potential criticism.

Once the filmmakers decided to represent something other than the Höss family’s everyday life and introduced an element of magic realism, wouldn’t it have made sense to also include a more direct depiction of Auschwitz’s victims?

The problem with such representation, exemplified by Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List, is that it runs the risk of performing the kind of compare-and-contrast operation with which critics of Glazer’s speech took issue.

For better or worse, The Zone of Interest communicates its message about dehumanisation by reproducing on a formal level.the endlessly horrific deeds of men like Rudolf Höss.

Just as he and his fellow bureaucrats turned human beings into logistical problems and sources of raw material, the film reduces them to sounds or the possessions that “lived” on after their deaths.

Perhaps it makes more sense to say that The Zone of Interest draws our attention to the problem of representing death on a mass scale.

When we see the displays at the Auschwitz museum being cleaned at the end of the film, we confront piles of shoes and clothes behind glass, decontextualised like items in an art installation.

Their connection to the people who wore them is rendered even more tenuous than when they were filmed on location for Alain Resnais’s 1956 film Night and Fog.

There’s always an insuperable gap between what remains behind and the life that it’s forced to stand for.

Ultimately, what makes The Zone of Interest such a uniquely distressing experience is that the film uses the superficially happy existence of Höss’s family — their outings in the country, birthday celebrations, and relaxing by the pool — to remind us of everything that was lost by the families on the other side of that garden wall.

Screenshot courtesy of A24. All rights reserved.