The Zone of Interest Left Me Without To Feel Knowing How

Published on 27 February 2024 at 23:13

By Lê Dũng

I feel almost angry with this movie with all of its jokes and its smugness.

As I walked out of the theatre after watching Oscar-nominated Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, I overheard a question from someone talking to her friend: “Yeah, I didn’t expect this movie to have gore or anything, but there was not a lot…” I walked out of the earshot before she finished her sentence. And I just wondered to myself isn’t this exactly what this movie is about? Our desire to use cinema as a medium to exercise our voyeuristic desire, for the camera to point towards the tragedy of the past from a safe distance?

The Zone of Interest story is fairly simple. It’s about an upper-class German family in the 40s. We have the husband working an office job, the wife taking care of the house and hanging out with the kids, and the three kids growing up close to nature with their beautiful garden in their spacious mansion. At some point, the husband was transferred to another location, but he asked for his family to keep the house and stay in the same place, only for him to have to move. Simple stuff. Oh, but with a little additional detail: “the husband” in this family is Nazi commandant Rudolf Hoss, and the house they live in is right next to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Rudolf is the director of the camp, he oversees its operation, he is responsible for the execution of its prisoners. Other than that, The Zone of Interest doesn’t have a clear, defined storyline in a traditional sense, there are no major conflicts or plot points, just people simply going on with their lives. 

The film never showed any parts of what happened inside the camp. In the first few scenes, the camp was not even acknowledged at all: the camera was simply angled to turn away from the wall that the garden shared with the camp. I believe the first time the wall was shown was when a man, who we assume to be a Jewish prisoner, was wheeling away the dirt in the garden, a task he did slowly, meticulously, enough for us to notice the wall and the smokey chimney behind it. That was the infamous gas chamber, the direct creation of the owner of this house and one of the main characters of this movie. What happened inside the camp is almost never discussed, or it is told in a matter-of-fact way, cold and unexpressive. The only way we ever have a glimpse of what is happening inside is through the sounds and colours, echoing in the background of every minute of this movie: we constantly hear the sounds of gunshots, of gas, of the shouting of the guards, of violence, we see the sky almost turn red every night. But it’s never acknowledged. They simply close the curtain at night. “We are trying to grow the trees so it would cover the wall”, the wife, Hedwig Hoss (Sandra Huller) said to her mother. It’s a joke, by the way. I didn’t know whether it was appropriate to laugh or not, but that’s a joke. There are several absurdist jokes like that in the movie. The family begged to be able to stay in Auschwitz because it was “good for the development of the children”. Humorous, isn’t it? And cruel and smug, the movie turns to the audience to ask, “Oh you are watching and enjoy it, aren’t you”?

There is no shortage of films about Nazi Germany, people love stories about tragedies and evils (that’s why we love dark tourism and true crime podcasts), from Spielberg’s Schindler's List to the controversial The Boy in the Striped Pyjama to the adaptation of The Book Thief (which I hated, despite adoring the book). We love to tell stories about these things. The act of filming and telling such a story is in and of itself voyeuristic in nature, and we can not escape it. And for The Zone of Interest, Glazer turned the camera to the other way, to the evil people who went on about their days as if nothing ever happened, the people who simply closed the curtain when the sky turned red, and it is disorienting. We have to acknowledge that evil exists, and they went about their days when suffering happened. This is a movie about how the camera is useless in telling the story of a tragedy such as the Holocaust, because we can never escape the voyeuristic nature of it: there is someone who acts out and films a great suffering, and you, the viewers, are sitting in your comfortable seat in your fancy film festival, watching these tragedies unfold. It is the story of the past. The evil is over, it never bothers you. You are here for a catharsis at the end of the story, where either the hero defeats the Nazis at the end like in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds or cries when the good guys are killed like in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabit (and unintentionally, we as the viewers have to reconcile with the fascistic nature of this type of narrative). The Zone of Interest offers you none of that. You just have to sit there and watch these people go on with their days, attending pool parties and picnic, and you have to endure the sound of violence in the background. At the end of the movie, Rudolf Hoss descends a stair after a party with the Nazi party, he tries to throw up but not successfully, he is shown a hole, in which he looks into the future: to the modern Auschwitz museums, with the victims’ shoes behind the glasses, ready to be shown to the next wave of curious gawking tourists. These are his direct victims. But, again, simply looking. Through a hole. Or, you know, like a camera lens.

The Zone of Interest makes you, the viewer, uncomfortable. I read quite a lot of discussions about the movie after watching it almost a week ago, because I could not figure out what to think of it. Some people claimed it to be about the evilness of the Hoss family. Well, yes. But also, further than that, there is one argument that I agree with: the movie confronted you with your own role in this act of evilness. You are just sitting there, staring. Are you that different from the people in the story, ignoring the acts of evil just next to them? The camera and cinema as a storytelling medium is useless in confronting these tragedies. Sandra Huller, in an interview with The Guardian, said that this movie “was about people ignoring terrible things right where they live. A film to make us unsafe in the cinema. As we should be. We should ask: is this also us? Do we do this, too?” What are we doing except to watch? Well, I’ll let you in a little secret: in research for this review, I found an interview by The Washington Post with the daughter of the Hoss family, she revealed that her mom, Hedwig (you know, the woman who was happy in her idealized life in Auschwitz, who stole make-up from the clothes of her husband’s prisoner) lived a regular life in Stuttgart after the war and her husband’s execution, and also visited her daughter in Washington D.C many times throughout her life. Or, I can let you know something not so secret: more than 2000 miles from where I am writing my article (and most likely the same where you read them), millions of people haveare beenbeing killed, massacred, and ethnically cleansed for the last few months. And for the longest time, many “third world” countries suffered from the bombs and bullets of the so-called “civilized world”, while most people tuned out their cry for help (it’s still happening, by the way). Sounds familiar? Does that make you think of the garden parties and the trees to cover the unwanted sights? The evilness is still all around us, and what could we do outside of watching from our little screen? 

If I’m being honest, I don’t know exactly what I feel about this movie. I hated its jokes, its confrontation, and also the movie feels like a direct hit toward the exact kind of movies I love. In my ranking of all the movies I watched at this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam, The Zone of Interest ranked at the fourth position, below a war movie where the camera is used as a tool in the story itself (78 Days), a love story with a tragic ending (The Beast), and a body horror in which the showiness, voyeurism is the thing that draws me in the most (Mamantula). Ha, Jonathan Glazer won this round against me. This movie is just nauseating and punched me in the stomach and smirking. 

Do I still want to watch Eurovision?

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