The Zone of Interest (2023)

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his wife Hedwig, strive to build a dream life for their family in a house and garden next to the camp.

I haven't seen any reviews attempt to interpret the closing scenes in which Höss appears to 'see' into the future. Most commentary around The Zone of Interest is stalled on the question of the family's personal psychology, the film's attempt to portray an ethical "banality" as well as the extent to which the movie "accurate" or not — this latter question is always the least interesting aspect to a biopic. However, far more engaging is what The Zone of Interest might be doing with those present-day sequences that show the rather quotidian cleaning of the Holocaust museum. It seems to be saying something negative about the normalisation of what happened, but perhaps it would be more precise to say that it is commenting on the normalisation of its remembrance rather than the holocaust's 'original' moral dimension.

Although the effect is probably a homage to the noted 'Hitler' sequence at the end of Elem Klimov's Come and See (1985), at the time of watching The Zone of Interest I actually found myself recalling The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. In particular, there's an arresting paragraph that suddenly smashes through its ~1860s narrative:

From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was to prove the contrary in 1943.

That this prophetic glimpse into the future (which is incongruously peppered with 'facts') only happens once merely adds to its effect — indeed, I remember almost falling out of my chair when reading this in a cafe. Obviously, the stakes in The Zone of Interest are on a totally different order than the risorgimento and the coconmitant decline of the Sicilian nobility, but I could not help but think of it… A similar effect, in reverse, is also found in

Oh, not much to add that hasn't already been said (beyond that the film is vastly better than the virtuosically unsavourable original novel by Martin Amis), but Michael Wood is absolutely right to point out that "Höss and Hedwig not only tolerate Auschwitz[, but] it fails to touch their happiness in any way." […]


There’s a word we might use for this juxtaposition of the domestic idyll and the death camp: “obscene.” But the word captures more than the camp’s utter depravity. It derives from the Greek, “ob-skeen,” which means offstage or out of sight, and Glazer’s film relies as a structural principle on a strict division between what is on- and off-screen. […] While the events taking place in the death camp are obscured from view, the house and garden are subjected contrapuntally to a radical visibility—everything the family does is on show, the very opposite of “ob-skeen,” hyper-visible.


Critics of Holocaust films often cite Theodor Adorno’s admonition that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. But […] I’ve been thinking about his later reconsideration of that statement:

[I]t may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz [one] can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz.

The Zone of Interest adopts this position, specifically Adorno’s alignment of “bourgeois subjectivity” with both the perpetrators of Auschwitz and the position from which one moves on from it, looks back on it, views it. One of the most troubling elements of Glazer’s film is that the viewer is not allowed to withdraw from the film’s radically circumscribed scene. Much of what disturbs us in the film comes from our preexisting knowledge of the Holocaust, with which we fill in the information that takes place out of shot. We can imagine the death camps because we have already seen what happened inside them. But The Zone of Interest follows Adorno’s line further. It makes bourgeois subjectivity, which elides both survivors and perpetrators, the necessary frame from which “we” view the film itself.

[T]he obscenity of the act of mass killing can only be fully rendered through a hybridized way of seeing, one in which the documentary form catalyzes a clarity of vision.

David Hering (LA Review of Books)


The story turns into one we know. Daddy is promoted and the family will have to move out of their dream house, spoiling their happy life. This is the same plot as Vincente Minnelli’s Judy Garland musical Meet Me in St. Louis, filmed in Hollywood and released in American theaters during the exact same time frame in which The Zone of Interest takes place—1943 and 1944.

A. S. Hamrah (n+1)


While the ordinariness of the Höss family is key to the film, that ordinariness belies a foundational link between fascism and the regulation of domestic life. Moreover, the film’s focus on domesticity takes shape within a network of representational strategies that both echo and depart from existing tropes in Holocaust cinema.


The philosopher Gillian Rose [had a] loathing for Schindler’s List, finding in the film and its critical responses a certain “Holocaust piety.” Holocaust piety, for Rose, works to protect against knowledge and self-reflection. Sentimentality and mythologization allow the viewer to bask in vicarious moral certainty, without having to confront one’s own position. […] In the place of Holocaust piety, Rose proposes a “Holocaust ethnography.” Such an ethnography would eschew the sanctimony often found in “representations of Fascism.” Commercial films about the Holocaust typically offer the spectator a relatively safe and predetermined position, comfortably distanced, where they can be assured of moral clarity and the satisfactions of pity and reverence. An ethnographic approach, for Rose, works to expose the underlying structures that enable fascism to exist, and moreover, to expose the manipulations of representation to offer viewers a false moral high ground (“the fascism of representation”). In the interest of understanding and preventing atrocities, Rose calls for films that put the viewer in the unsafe position of questioning their own identifications and their own capacity for violence.


[Höss'] line becomes caught, and when he tugs it free, he sees that it has become entangled in a human jawbone. His face contorts. […] But it quickly becomes clear that his horror has nothing to do with the fate of the prisoner whose bones he is holding, but rather with the feared contamination of his children, and himself, by the bones and ashes swirling about them. […] Höss is enacting a familiar human instinct to protect his children at the same moment that his reaction is utterly, incomprehensibly, inhumane. This is perhaps what Rose refers to as “the fascism of representation”: the manipulation of identification structured into the very apparatus of cinema, cinema’s tendency to secure the frame of reference, indeed to establish for the viewer which lives are worth apprehending or caring for. The shift in psychological framing that Glazer enacts here exposes the capacity for violence central to the enterprise of representation, and the ease with which it can be weaponized toward political ends.


Rudolf and Hedwig [Höss] met as members of the Artaman League, a völkisch agrarian ethnonationalist organization. 25 Founded in 1923, the Artaman League promoted health, vigor, and racial purity through a return to traditional rural practices, as personified by the soldier-peasant and the sturdy, fecund housewife. […] Thus the execution of Jews and Poles is not incidental to Hedwig’s garden; it is precisely part of the plan. The paradise she is building stakes a claim on the land that will soon be “purified,” a shining model for Nazi futurity.


If a genocide is performed by an administration or a state, it becomes, at least from a legal perspective, almost impossible to prosecute. Either everyone in the system is guilty by association, or no one can be held guilty as an individual.

Amy Herzog (Film Quarterly)