What is the Zone of Interest About?

Published on 27 February 2024 at 23:13

By Artem Varaksin

It is difficult to speak about the Zone of Interest in qualitative terms, which is why it is so interesting to me to attempt to review it.

We live in a media world that is oversaturated with the “war film,” those dealing with WW1, more often WW2, and occasionally the Holocaust -  an event of incomprehensible intensity, onto which in a form of mass social therapy we project narratives of perseverance, survival, loss, separation, devastation, etc. 

The hook of the film – they don’t actually show any atrocities on camera. You’re excited, it seems cool. The promos are artsy. You reserve your ticket; you get some snacks for the film. “It’s supposed to be quite heavy”– you tell your companion, and you’re excited for just another night at the movies - “this one is supposed to be good!” 

And the film transcends cinema, I think. Not necessarily because ‘it is good,’ but because to me, it doesn’t quite belong to the category of “film,” and the cinema feels like the wrong place for it. However, I also struggle to think of a better one. 

The Zone of Interest is a fascinating film from a formal perspective, as it communicates with the audience in a coded, slightly schizophrenic manner. The events which the film focuses on are not the primary dramatic drivers; the emotions shown by the principal characters are meant to stir the completely opposite ones in the viewer. When the wife of Auschwitz director General Höss laughs, the audience squirms. When she walks mannishly along her garden, gesticulating proudly at the gaudy flowers, the audience is eerily silent. 

I don’t want to explicitly praise, nor criticize the film. For me, the experience of watching it devolved into the form of a bizarre, cursed easter egg hunt. One has to tear one’s eyes away from the pool in which the Nazi kids are playing to catch a glimpse of train smoke - bringing more prisoners to the concentration camp behind the wall. Like a child that’s just spotted Waldo I unconsciously reward myself, feeling an immediate guilt for a positive trigger that this created in me. I understand that it is a formative reflection of the film’s message, yet it is difficult for me to face the almost “playful” way in which this works, scene after scene. 

It has been said a lot that this film shows us the “banality of evil,” but I think those interpretations slightly underthink it. Masha Gessen, in their piece for the New Yorker, and subsequent Politico interview, formulates something really poignant, on which I think the impact of The Zone of Interest hangs:

“We’re not any better or smarter or morally more solid than people who lived 90 years ago. The only difference between us and them is that in their imagination, the Holocaust didn’t yet exist. We know that it’s possible and we know that it happened, so we have to use that cognitive tool in order to prevent it from happening again. ” (Gessen)

We know. The film knows that we know. It doesn’t need to be explicit. At the same time, with its sobering flash-forward to the present, it says: if you’re appalled by the Höss’s in the 1940’s, you should be appalled by yourself in the 2020’s. The circumstances are different, yes, but this is happening right now, while you’re in the cinema. Ethnic cleansing and mass killing, sponsored by various governments to which you belong while you laugh and swim in pools, and to which in some unlikely indirect way even the money you paid for your movie ticket goes. And yet, there you are/we are/I am, crunching M&Ms at the cinema on Valentine’s Day (great movie choice you guys), having a cheeky beer. 

Thus, to me The Zone of Interest is about us humans’ timeless, boundless capacity for ignoring evil and the ways in which we must remember, recognize, and reject it. 

Reference: 

Gessen, M. "Masha Gessen Kicks the Hornet’s Nest on Israel and the Holocaust." Interview by C. 

McHugh. Politico, 16 Dec. 2023, www.politico.com/news/magazine/2023/12/16/masha-gessen-israel-holocaust-00132132.

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