The Zone of Interest Jonathon Glazer (UK/Pol; 2023) Christian Friedel, Sandra Hueller
viewed 13 Feb 2024 Tyneside Cinema; ticket £11.75
tricks of the trade
Following a long durational shot of a dark blank screen, we hear the sound of bird song as the film’s opening images depict a series of riverside shots of an idyllic summer’s day. An ordinary family, mother father and their young children are enjoying a leisurely picnic before heading back home. We are in the world of normality.
Home we discover is Commandant Hoess’ house situated hard by the wall of Auschwitz l where he lives with his wife Hedwig and their five children.
Jonathon Glazer has chosen to make a film about Auschwitz some 80 years on from its existence. Auschwitz is the site of mass murder. If its invocation comprises no more than a background for situational melodrama or if it’s exploited as an exercise in intellectual or artistic posturing, then you join the legions of those who profit from the betrayal of the dead.
Film makers (and of course by extension those using other media) laying claim to the good faith of their Auschwitz project need courage knowledge and a commitment to truth, even if it’s difficult or inconvenient to represent. At this point when research histories and accounts of Auschwitz have generated multiple layers of analyses insights and explanations relating to the Nazi’s industrialisation of death, there should be some compelling moral imperative driving the movie, perhaps something urgent to say.
‘The Zone of Interest’ (“The Zone’) comes across as a project grounded in Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial in 1961. It looks like Glazer has taken Arendt’s oft cited phrase about Eichmann as representing “…the banality of evil” and used this idea as the basis of his scenario. Arendt’s concept of the banality of bureaucratic evil has in itself has been subject to very critical review. Be that as it may, the idea that many people whilst perpetrating murderous atrocities are quite able to lead parallel ‘normal’ lives is now a sociological trope: the compartmentalisation of roles. Glazer doesn’t take his script beyond this idea with which we are now well familiar from Nazi Germany (Goebbels) through to multiple exemplars in the American wars in Vietnam Afghanistan etc. ‘The Zone’ takes its cue from a borrowed concept, one element of Arendt’s characterisation of Eichmann. Without holding it out to further inspection, Glazer is satisfied to express repetition of idea rather than conceptual urgency. And in these times we need urgency, not self satisfaction.
Locked into a concept that may well be played out, Jonathan Glazer’s film aims no higher than the cool rendering of the banality of evil. Film as a putative enactment of the home life of Hoess and his wife Hedwig in the ‘death camp’ location. Tastefully shot, a mapping rather than a narrative, ‘The Zone’ communicates as a walk through installation complete with little courtesy stops to allow the audience to assimilate the co-existence of both everyday life and murderous evil in the course of the house’s daily routine. Alongside the river visits, the celebration of birthdays, the planning of holidays, housewives’ gossip we pause to see Hoess order his new more efficient gas chambers and Hedwig indulge her venal greed in acquiring the expensive possessions of those Jews murdered and incinerated by her husband.
Glazer marks his film with particular signifiers of authenticity: the dialogue is in German, and the furniture clothing and other meticulous detailing are all evidential of ‘the period’. These outer signs are of course central to the representational but not to moral claims of ‘The Zone’. They obviously work as standard filmic accoutrements, as does the soundtrack representing the constancy of the evil emanating from the Auschwitz l. The issue is that the more effort filmmakers concentrate on representational authenticity, the greater the work that is needed to imprint a moral core in the material. When image is dominant in a stream of communication it crowds out anything other than the simplest message. Advertisers know that after a series of beautiful shots designed to fill out and engender positive associative connections, all that is needed to condition the audience’s consciousness is a one word strap line: Apple – Samsung – Toyota. When compelling images have associative connections or qualities making a claim on truth they overwhelm the capacity of mind to question. Authenticity of image in itself can induce a moral deficit which as Glazer’s film progressed became more evident.
Glazer’s script relating to the authenticity of his characters has one highly questionable moment. It’s known that Hoess (perhaps from his autobiography which I haven’t read) had a least one Jewish lover from Auschwitz: the film duly but obliquely documents this. But there is also one similar oblique scene suggesting that Hedwig was partial to take on sex with her Polish house gardeners. This suggestion is at odds both with everything we are shown about Hedwig (“They call me the Queen of Auschwitz”) her beliefs and behaviour, and with the self image of Nazi wives. It does not ring true; it lacks palpable credibility. The script has moved out of the realm of period re-enactment into the realm of acting out contemporary social mores. Hedwig’s moment feels like Glazer’s sop to the feminist sensibilities of contemporary audiences. The scene is a statement that he is ‘cool’ about sexual equality to the extent of retrofixing Hedwig with her own ‘date’ so she is not outdone by her husband’s infidelity. This ‘false’ event suggests that one of Glazer’s prime concerns is to add lustre to his own self image, to ingratiate himself with the audience by flattering them with anachronistic sensibilities.
‘The Zone’ is intercut with a number of sequences presented in an other worldly colourisation, in contradistinction to the flat realism of the main shoot. These sequences depict in contradistinction to the evil of the main characters, the compassion of a young woman trying to hide apples in the environs of the camp so that they may be found by starving workers. The sequences are mute but overlaid with voice over telling the story of Hansel and Gretel, a fairy tale with a gruesome but just ending. The logic for employing such a stylistic differentiation in these cutaway sequences isn’t clear. The effect is similar to the pool shots in Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’, but different in that those shots were a continuity of the action, whereas the ‘little girl’ story lies outside ‘the installation’ scenario. In both cases the edited effects are a resort to spectacle. This works well on its own terms in ‘Under the Skin’, but in ‘The Zone’ came across as a debasement of integrity. Glazer has chosen to prioritize the spectacle of image over the claims of compassion and understanding, form over content, design over intent, overwhelming the viewers’ attention with visual display. Consequently these colourised sequences function like an advert for something or other than no one really understands, but which somehow stake a claim on the audience’s attention to being important.
At the end of ‘The Zone’ Glazer intercuts his last shots of Hoess leaving the ‘final solution conference’, with scenes from today at the Auschwitz Museum. We see a series of shots: its gas chamber and its contemporary display cabinets piled high with the detritus of mass murder: suitcases shoes etc. We see local Polish women engaged in the cleaning of these spaces. The intention of inserting these contemporary shots of Auschwitz is unclear. If Glazer had only shown the Auschwitz display cabinets evidencing ‘The Horror’, these shots would have pasted into ‘The Zone’ the actuality of what was happening behind the camp walls. ‘The Zone of Interest’ that we saw outside Hoess’ house was the screened off reality of the warped psyches of the participants which conditioned and defined them. Filming Auschwitz with the women cleaners at work loads the shots with alternative meanings. Is Glazer making a feminist comment that women’s work is never done? That Polish women had moved from being cleaners in the Nazi Hoess household to being cleaners in the Auschwitz museum, from serving the Germans to serving the remains of the Jews? Is Glazer pointing to the ironic consequences of Auschwitz becoming a site of mass tourism where the press of visitors gazing on all that remains of Hoess’ kingdom of genocide need an army of cleaners to sweep up after them? Both these ideas, even if unintended, are implicit readings of the shots. But perhaps this section of ‘The Zone’ was simply Glazer’s solution to the ending to his film. Perhaps he felt the need to sign off ‘The Zone’ with a token contemporary, but ambiguous reference to Auschwitz today, thereby indicating that he was in a cool but unspecific post-modernist way, alert to all possible readings of the death camp.
With or without the cleaners the shots of the Auschwitz seem the inevitable place to finish for a film that embraces itself as an arts project rather than a moral project. A walk through movie that is ultimately vacuous but exploits tasteful authentic period repro, spectacle and ambiguity to convince some audiences that they have experienced a rare insight into the ‘banality of evil’.
An Auschwitz film today either has to propose another way of seeing or extend the material out into the world as it is now. ‘The Zone of Interest’ does neither of these. Revisiting familiar ground Glazer has filled out ‘The Zone’ with clever tricks of the trade, his film echoing the banality of evil with the banality of film making.