The Zone of Interest: A Holocaust film with echoes in today's world

Glazer's Oscar-winning film prompts the question: What would we have done had we lived during the Holocaust and known about it? The genocide in Gaza today reveals frightening answers.

A scene from the film 'The Zone of Interest'
A scene from the film 'The Zone of Interest'

The Zone of Interest: A Holocaust film with echoes in today's world

During his trial for war crimes in April 1946, former Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss was accused of murdering three and a half million Jews in the camp he led.

“No,” he responded from the defendant’s box. “Only two and a half million. The rest died from diseases and hunger.”

Höss commanded Auschwitz until 1 December 1943 and oversaw the “execution and elimination” of Jews and others by gassing and burning. His testimony was matter-of-fact. Yes, he did this. Yes, those were the numbers. Yes, that was the method.

It is uncertain whether it was the trial, the testimony of Höss during it, or the autobiography he penned shortly before his execution in April 1947 that inspired British novelist Martin Amis to write his 2014 work The Zone of Interest.

That novel has now been made into a film, which was released last year and directed by British screenwriter and filmmaker Jonathan Glazer.

It has just won two Oscars (Best International Feature and Best Sound) at the 96th Academy Awards, and was nominated for the coveted Best Picture category, which was eventually won by Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.

Happiness in hell

The Zone of Interest stands as a significant cinematic exploration of the Holocaust, yet it is no paint-by-numbers Hollywood conformist. In terms of style, Spielberg’s epic Schindler’s List feels a long way away.

Key to the story and the exploration of evil is that Höss and his family, including his wife Hedwig and their five children, all lived next door to the camp. The focus of Glazer's film is that the pleasant normality of life may exist next to such horror.

"The idea that someone would be very happy at Auschwitz, the idea that somebody would not want to leave Auschwitz—I set the story around that particular moment," says Glazer.

Höss had been in charge at Auschwitz since May 1940. Heinrich Himmler conveyed the infamous "final solution" to Höss in 1941. The commandant began researching the most effective methods of mass murder in September of that year.

By late 1943, he had become so efficient at turning the site into an industrial killing machine that he was promoted and summoned to Berlin. Yet, he did not want to leave. Nor did his wife.

The film zones in on this desire to continue living a stone's throw from the Nazi perpetration of genocide, where the crematoria burning at night is enough to make Hedwig's visiting mother head home.

Höss spends time away from the camp following his promotion to oversee all Nazi concentration and extermination camps, but his wife and children are granted permission to stay.

Finally, after several months, he is allowed to return in May 1944, and stays until January 1945. While he has been away, he has been thinking of better ways to kill so many people.

Meanwhile, Hedwig has been tending to the garden, with its herbs and azaleas. Other scenes show the children swimming and fishing. The comfort in which they live is what makes this so uncomfortable.

The focus of Glazer's film is that the pleasant normality of life may exist next to such horror.

Living a normal life

Nearly eight decades after the Holocaust, Höss is shown here as symbolic of something far larger than him, his military rank, or his specific actions.

Glazer's interpretation of Amis's novel eschews traditional biographical storytelling. Instead, it delves into the deeper meaning of crime and the complexities of evil (with occasional glimpses of goodness). This was, after all, extermination as choice.

The British director opts not to show in detail the suffering of victims in the camp but rather to focus on the cosy nest to which Höss returned every day after work.

This executioner's house becomes a metaphor for the Nazis' world, reclining in all the signs of civilisation, yet with genocide running alongside in parallel.

In Glazer's film, Hedwig's mother comes to stay for a few days. She shares the same prejudices and racism towards Jews as her daughter, son-in-law, and other Nazis.

Despite that, she finds that she cannot stay. Although she has heard rumours and gossip about what goes on at Auschwitz, she cannot bear to see and smell it. The pervasive presence of the Holocaust next door is too much.

Already disturbed by the knowledge of extermination, her physical proximity to it hits home. The stench of the crematoria, the billowing smoke, the ceaseless roar of mass killing forces her to leave suddenly, without explanation.

A scene from the film 'The Zone of Interest'

The passivity and indifference that saturates this film and these characters may be a comment on the reaction of free nations after learning about what was happening at places like Auschwitz.

A mirror on today

Hedwig's mother's lack of vocal protest perfectly depicts the twin strategies of avoidance and denial that many were guilty of at the time.

This may have weighed on the film's writer and director. "I started trying to look at this as a mirror of our lives now," says Glazer.

When Glazer's film The Zone of Interest was being screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2023, the world was still five months away from the Hamas attack on southern Israel and the Gaza war that followed.

Charges of genocide have now been levelled against Israel following the killing of 30,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children.

It feels difficult to watch The Zone of Interest with hundreds in Gaza still dying and mass starvation now breaking out.

Recently, 25-year-old US Air Force pilot Aaron Bushnell set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C, later dying from his injuries.

Glazer's film prompts the question: What would we have done had we lived during the Holocaust and known about it?

Immediately before his self-immolation, he said he could "not be complicit in genocide". Bushnell's invocation of historical examples to condemn silence as a form of complicity resonates deeply.

Similarly, Glazer's film prompts the question: What would we have done had we lived during the Holocaust and known about it? What actions would we have taken?

Paradise and hell 

The film also raises many other questions. When Höss is told by higher command to move to Berlin, Hedwig staunchly refuses to accompany him.

For three years, she has meticulously cultivated their own little paradise. She and the children are content and healthy, she says. 

She knows every bush, shrub, herb, and flower in the garden because she planted them. Why should she leave? How could she abandon this house, which was originally owned by a Polish family, perhaps even Jewish?

Her determination to stay helps contrast her domestic tranquillity with the extermination of hundreds of thousands just a few metres away.

The film explores the boundaries of denial and the deliberate evasion of conscience. It looks at the passive acceptance of circumstance and the facing away from reality.

These strategies and behaviours did not end with the Holocaust. Today, with myriad injustices like extreme poverty, mass displacement, child labour, and gender-based violence, plenty still deny, evade, accept, and face away.

A scene from the film 'The Zone of Interest'

Echoes throughout history

Glazer subtly explores how those driven by notions of racial superiority can delude themselves into believing that they are inherently superior to others.

Brought up in a Jewish family in north London, the relevance of the Gaza tragedy that unfolded after the film aired is not lost on him.

Accepting the Oscar, he drew a direct line between the film and the actions of Israel's right-wing government, which itself became controversial.

"Our film shows where dehumanisation leads at its worst," he said. "It shaped all of our past and present.

"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.

"Whether the victims of 7 October in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanisation, how do we resist?"

He is far from alone in worrying. Israeli intellectual and historian Yuval Harari, in a recent interview with Sky News, expressed similar concerns.

He said that "those who rule Israel today are not followers of the secular Zionism that founded Israel, but who embrace the ideas of Jewish supremacy". He considers this to be the real threat to the existence of Israel itself.

Pragmatic evil

Throughout the film, there is detachment. Hedwig, for instance, is shown indulging in the clothes, jewellery, and decorative items of Jewish women killed in Auschwitz.

She even gives some to her servants before reassuring her mother that the servants are "not Jewish girls but locals" as if that were the important point.

Elsewhere, Höss and colleagues discuss the logistics of their new Holocaust facility at Auschwitz with the detached pragmatism of engineers designing a bridge.

The heinous purpose that it will serve seems secondary at best. In the place of morality stands practicality.

That is shown in the discussion about the efficiency of the gas chambers and the castigation of an officer for "carelessness" in letting an inmate's body get into a stream in which Höss's children are playing.

Amis's novel has three narrators, each with a different perspective, and includes themes of infidelity, lust, and murder. The film, however, is more of an exploration of horror. It goes beyond the person to the wider picture.

Nolan's Oppenheimer adopts a similar approach in that it transcends a mere biography of the bomb's creator to tell the story of the bomb itself.

Although they could scarcely be more different, both Nolan and Glazer's films aim to capture a moment of profound horror in the same war.

Drumbeat of banality

It is notable that sound—both music and effects—plays a pivotal role in both films, crafting immersive auditory experiences.

Glazer says sound is like "a film" in its own right.

That is no accident. Sound designer Johnnie Burn compiled a 600-page report incorporating camp testimonies and maps to work out distances and echoes.

Building the sound library for Zone of Interest took a year, but it was time well spent. Indeed, the sound is its own narrator.

He then traveled the world to source the audio, whether it was the sound of boots, machinery, crematoria, furnaces, era-accurate gunshots, protesting French voices, or drunken German voices.

Building this "sound library" took a year, but it was time well spent. Indeed, the soundtrack emerges as the true narrator.

Among all the film's plaudits, one stood out. "The Zone of Interest is the best Holocaust movie I've witnessed since my own," said Steven Spielberg. "It's doing a lot of good work in raising awareness, especially about the banality of evil."

Spielberg's phraseology is purposeful. "The Banality of Evil" is the now famous subtitle to Hannah Arendt's 1963 book on the trial of senior Nazi and Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.

The phrase refers to Eichmann's demeanour at his trial, displaying neither guilt for his actions nor hatred for those trying him. His defence was that he was just doing his job.

The same could be said of Höss, who 'only' killed 2.5 million, the rest having died from diseases and hunger, while he and his family lived happily next door.

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