Fri. Jul 12th, 2024

Photo: “The Zone of Interest” Movie Poster via IMDb

For decades, there has been much debate about how to represent the horrors of the Holocaust on screen, and whether they should be represented on screen at all. Jonathan Glazer’s new film, “The Zone of Interest” (2023), tackles this debate in a revolutionary way: looking at atrocity through the apathy of the perpetrators. The Oscar-nominated film stars Christian Freidel and Sandra Hüller as Rudolf and Hedwig Höss, a Nazi commander and his wife, as they maintain their dream lives while sharing a wall with the Auschwitz concentration camp. Hüller, who also starred in fellow Academy nominee “Anatomy of a Fall” (2023), delivers a chilling performance that transforms the most mundane actions into nightmarish depictions of indifference. 

The film is unique in how it presents the horrors occurring as we watch the Nazi family carry out their idealized lives. Unlike most films covering the Holocaust, we never directly witness the atrocities carried out. We see the smoke from the trains and the crematoriums over the ivy-covered garden wall, hear screams and gunfire as Hedwig eats her breakfast and occasionally catch a glimpse of workers being marched through the fields near the Höss family’s home as their children play in the backyard. By keeping everything just out of sight, Glazer shows us how terrifyingly comfortable these people are with living next door to human suffering. The sounds of death become white noise to them, no different from bees buzzing or birds chirping. Such unsettling indifference answers the impossible question of how atrocities like this are allowed to happen: apathy towards anything that occurs outside one’s comfort bubble.

The most striking sequence in the film involves the use of thermal vision. We watch a Polish girl from the nearby village drop food rations in various locations around the outskirts of the camp for starving prisoners, the one hint of hope in the entire film. However, this scene also highlights how the carnage itself does not need to be seen up close to be felt. The entire sequence is shot in black-and-white thermal vision, which leaves everything in the frame cold and bleak except for three things: the girl, the apples she leaves behind for the prisoners, and the smoke rising from both the camp’s chimneys and the incoming trains. The use of heat vision reminds viewers that every gunshot we hear, every smoke cloud we see, every scream from beyond the wall, is a human life lost. It also highlights the lifelessness of the idyllic country life the Höss family has constructed. Even when they believe it doesn’t extend beyond the wall of Auschwitz, death completely surrounds them.

The final scene in “The Zone of Interest” is its thesis, a visual representation of the banality of evil. Rudolf Höss has been taken away from his picture-perfect life and family and dispatched back to what he deems the worst place in the world: the city. He is appointed as the head of an operation to deport all of Hungary’s Jewish population to various concentration and death camps across Europe. As he leaves his office, he begins to feel sick, but finds himself unable to actually vomit. In the middle of his retching, he looks across the hall and sees the future: Auschwitz, the concentration camp he built, has become a memorial to the horrors of the Holocaust. We watch as janitors vacuum its floors, wipe down the crematoriums, and spray glass cases containing piles of belongings stolen from the victims with windex. It echoes the mundane, everyday chores we’ve watched the Höss family engage in as those same victims, now memorialized, were dying at their doorstep. After Höss sees this, he composes himself and silently leaves the building as if nothing ever happened. 

“The Zone of Interest” left me with feelings I couldn’t articulate and questions I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask. I thought about the Holocaust in the greater scope of history — what led up to it and how it has been remembered. I thought about genocides occuring right now and how they are condensed in social media posts people scroll past. I thought about how every mundane thing we do each day of our lives, like brushing our teeth or standing in line at the store, is happening under the same sky as somebody suffering an atrocity that will end up immortalized in a history book someday. The film’s title refers to the boundaries our empathy has, both physically and mentally. Do I live in a zone of interest? Do you? Do all of us? 

“The Zone of Interest” was nominated for multiple Oscars this year, including Best Picture and Best Director. I don’t know if it will win, but I do know that people will still be discussing this film and what it has to say about the banality of evil years from now.  


Elijah Fischer is a second-year English major with a minor in Journalism. 

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