The Zone of Interest Manifests the Banality of Evil

“The life we enjoy is very much worth the sacrifice.” – Rudolf Höss

Hannah Arendt famously coined the term “The banality of evil” when ruminating on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, who had famously been one of the major participants of the Final Solution, fled Germany and lived in Argentina before Israeli Nazi hunters tracked him down and brought him to trial for war crimes, and crimes against humanity in the 1960s. Eichmann did not deny his role in the Holocaust. He simply stated that he was following orders and therefore was not personally responsible for the deaths of millions of people.

Jonathan Glazer in freely adapting Martin Amis’ novel makes the decision to have that same banality of evil seep in from every corner of the frame. The titles of the film are black and white with whisps of smoke and Mica Levy’s string laden score. They are oppressive, so much so that it is almost a relief when the film shifts into a colourful bucolic picnic scene with a seemingly ordinary family by a lake. Yet, they are not an ordinary family. They are the Höss family, headed by Rudolf (Christian Friedel) and Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their multiple children and staff.

Despite initially appearing normal there is something in Rudolf’s stance as he surveys the lake that is troubling. It is reminiscent of the kitsch propaganda employed by the Nazis. He and his family are the image of the Aryan race – something Rudolf later reiterates in his arguments as to why they should retain their home. They are the model German family.

The audience never sets foot inside Auschwitz-Birkenau while it is an active camp, but they don’t have to. The Höss family home is right next door to it. Glazer reveals the depth of what we are not witnessing but are completely aware of with a dispassionate gaze and mostly formalistic technique. When he breaks the formalism, it is for a reason. We hear the camp consistently – the screams, the shots, the sounds of dogs barking, and soldiers shouting, and the industrial hum of the crematoriums. We see the dead through their presence not as bodies but as fur coats, lipstick, and perfume which Hedwig tries on in front of her mirror. Or the gold teeth one of the Höss sons plays with. The expansive garden of which Hedwig is so proud is fertilised by the ashes of the dead brought in by prisoners.

Rudolf and Hedwig create an idyll in the centre of an atrocity. They are not in any manner innocents ignoring what is happening. Rudolf the head of KL Auschwitz and a primary architect of the slaughter and the never ceasing crematoriums. Hedwig insists on maintaining her party supported status which has brought her from working class to middle-management elite. She coldly comments that if one of her staff breaks another plate, she will be sent up the chimney. In anger she spits at another local Polish servant, “I could have my husband spread your ashes across the fields of Barbice.”

Hedwig gossips with other party wives who bemoan that some of the dresses taken from the Jews are too small for them to wear or how some of the tricky ones hid diamonds in toothpaste. She designs her paradise garden and organises parties. Her primary concern when Rudolph is transferred elsewhere is that she and the children be allowed to remain in their home because it is what they strived so hard for, “Everything is at our doorstep. That is our house.”

When Hedwig’s mother, Linna Hensel (Imogen Kogge), visits the home Hedwig fusses to prove what a success she has become. She complains that the house is perhaps still a little too small, but they will be getting heating soon. Linna, who was a former cleaner for a Jewish woman idly wonders if Esther is in one of the camps. Linna becomes increasingly aware that she is no longer just visiting her daughter but is breathing in, and witnessing, mass murder. Under the cover of dark she departs leaving a note which Hedwig burns – in her own way she is sending her mother up the chimney for her tacit disapproval.

There are few scenes within Glazer’s film which don’t serve a specific purpose. Rudolph Höss is a kind paternal figure. He reads ‘Hansel and Gretel’ to his sleepwalking daughter. While he reads the tale of two children tricking a witch into her own oven Glazer employs almost surreal solarised scenes shot via thermal imaging where a young Polish girl leaves food in hidden places for partisans and workers to find. The German Hausmärchen collected by the Brothers Grimm in the early 19th century represents ingenuity but also the reality of famine. With so many children forcefully separated from their parents and an invading force which is starving the Polish, the tale could not be more apt.

Although the presence of Zyklon B is not spoken of the toxic runoff into a river where he is fishing with two of his causes his first moment of abject panic. That in some way he could be responsible for subjecting his family to the same poison he has used to kill untold thousands is beyond his ability to parse as he scrubs himself clean. They have been breathing in the ashes of human beings for years, but it is the first time he imagines that his own family could be at risk.

Again, when Rudolph leaves Auschwitz for Germany to help oversee the ‘Hungarian Project’ the film moves for the first time into snow. There is an overhead shot to show just how many men overseeing camps sat calmly and discussed lives as target quotas. When Rudolf is at a party hosted by industrialists and party elite it could be a painting by George Grosz. Rudolf is not interested in socialising; his mind is on the logistics of how he would gas everyone in the high-ceilinged concert hall.

 Łukasz Żal generally avoids anything but a static camera where the actors walk in and out of the frame (he used a series of hidden cameras in the house). The audience is watching the events unfold at a remove. Paul Watts’ editing and Mica Levi’s score along with the chilling sound design by Johnnie Burn ensure the viewer cannot escape the horrors that are implicit. Absence is presence. When a young girl plays ‘Sunbeams’ by Joseph Wulff written while he was a prisoner in Auschwitz III it is the only time a Jewish perspective is shown.

How does one document mass murder? How does one reckon with atrocity? Glazer gives the audience everything by ensuring they cannot see. The claustrophobia of the film is in how blasé almost everyone is to the nightmare at their door. A wall that separates such lovely blooms of nature juxtaposed with the red of the furnaces, the black of the chimneys, and a screen which turns the colour of blood and fire.

Glazer is deliberately avoiding sentiment to prove how easily people become complicit in monstrousness. How dehumanisation can be as easily expressed by frustration about not being able to own the curtains once owned by a deported Jew. It is not simply the bureaucracy and the efficiency of the Nazis to reduce human beings to percentages of those who will die and those who will work. Rudolf walks down a seemingly unending staircase which is perhaps his metaphorical descent into the realm of the punished dead, but already there is hell on earth in his time and in our own. If we as humans simply tend to our own gardens and block out the screams of the persecuted, are we not also part of the cycle of dehumanising others for our own survival and comfort?

The Zone of Interest ranks amongst one of the best films about the Holocaust ever made – and that list is extensive. Glazer looks at the world as if he is not a part of it – that he is somewhat as alien as Isserley in Under the Skin. Yet like Isserley he has empathy whether he wants to reveal it or not. The Zone of Interest begs for empathy by showing almost none. Perhaps that is the greatest triumph of the film. Never look away, never look away.

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Cast: Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller, Imogen Kogge

Writer: Jonathan Glazer, (based on the novel The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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