Courtesy of A24

February 5, 2024

‘The Zone of Interest’ and Creeping Desensitization

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Content Warning: Genocide

Adapted from a Martin Amis novel, Jonathon Glazer’s The Zone of Interest follows the inner lives of Auschwitz Commandant Rudolph Höss and his wife Hedwig, focusing its attention on family strife and workplace politics rather than the unspeakable horrors happening on the opposite side of the camp’s walls. Constantly breaking the 180-degree rule, diverting into avant-garde infrared sequences and displaying long, would-be boring depictions of domestic life, the film sets out to put off its own audience, confronting both the ability of cinema to narrativize evil and the startling comfort of an audience in engaging with it. Nearly every scene is set against a vomit-inducing soundscape that combines the machinery of death with the human reactions that it inspires (and the subsequent gunfire and dog barks part and parcel to the repression). It’s one of last years’ most difficult films but also one of its most essential, a treatise on the ease with which horror is tuned out just as its modern analogue is more visible than ever. 

The obvious comparator text for The Zone of Interest is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, possibly the definitive visual document of the Holocaust and a film most notable for its refusal to show a second of archival footage. Glazer, who isn’t painting with a documentary canvas, must represent Auschwitz as an operating camp, but he too restrains his camera from ever actually depicting images either of genocide or those doomed to it. Shoah’s many testimonies of Polish civilians living around the camps are directly adapted here, as is a central conceit of Shoah — the Holocaust as an extension of industrial capitalism into genocide. In both cases, withheld representation of specific evil acts does not suggest that excruciating detail is averted. Rather, the juxtaposition of either explicit witness testimony (as in Shoah) or soul-crushing audio with beautiful forests and well-manicured gardens, serve to clarify the horror and situate it within a world in which we’re familiar. 

The experience of watching The Zone of Interest is far from pleasant: The film, after all, opens with an extended piece of disorienting music played against a black screen. Yet, for all of its visual discontinuities and auditory vileness, Glazer is also daring the viewer to invest in the uninvestable. The family narrative, though far from the level of intricacy of a conventional film, still isn’t quite spare enough that one can avoid following its events. There is no forgetting the context of the drama, but it is difficult to extricate oneself from the plot entirely, even as the audience is granted brief ‘reprieves’ in the form of musical cues or infrared sequences. The latter, depicting small acts of resistance from those in the town, are shot and cut in such an alienating fashion so as to ground the family narrative (for all its formal radicalism) in normalcy and paint resistance as deeply foreign. For as unbelievable as the idea of Auschwitz is, Glazer’s lens presents resisting Auschwitz as a different visual language entirely. Most of us end up far closer to enablers of genocide than to its resistors, even if few are comfortable in either place.  

The ending of The Zone of Interest offers few answers and far greater ambiguity. Shot in present day at the museum erected around the former death camp, the final scenes feature footage of employees cleaning the exhibits juxtaposed with Höss descending a staircase at a Nazi headquarters as he gags and holds back vomit. The room for interpretation here is substantial, but the gaze of Höss directly into the screen (and his subsequent nausea) suggests a character glimpsing briefly into posterity. He will not be remembered, but his actions will and for them he will be reviled. The wearers of the shoes discarded before extermination (and now displayed at Auschwitz) are the ones deserving of memory, perhaps a slight antithesis to a film that spends its runtime avoiding their representation. In some ways, the ending is ultimately unsatisfying in its depiction of some sort of productive future where the Holocaust is appropriately acknowledged: The Auschwitz Memorial has in the last year come under scrutiny for weaponizing Jewish identity to justify Israeli government actions and for its recent screening of what amounts to an advertisement for X. 

It’s a film worthy of consideration in an era where the grinding machinery of genocide isn’t confined to an isolated town in Poland but extended to every cell phone and computer on the planet. As horrifying images from Gaza increasingly begin to take the position of wallpaper on social media feeds, The Zone of Interest forces us to confront our own complicity in the process of tuning out horror or excusing our own inaction. None of us are as singularly responsible as Rudolph Höss (or even Hedwig) for the genocide in Gaza, but the exact same process that enabled them to sleep at night is collectively empowering each and every criminal official and implicating us as their constituents. 

If we manage to find moments of resistance — buying from Peet’s instead of Starbucks or attending the occasional protest — it’s hard not to feel insane, as though viewing the world in infrared, or helpless, (even) collectively unable to make much more than slight alterations around the edges of a sea of tragedy or manage better than belated representation of documented atrocity. Yet, to tune out the noise remains unthinkable: Even if one somehow manages to find themselves asleep every night, we might hope that there is no escape from the cold justice of posterity. 

Max Fattal is a Junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected].