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‘The Zone of Interest’

The Zone of Interest is Jonathan Glazer’s critically acclaimed, double-Oscar-winning, triple-BAFTA-winning adaptation of Martin Amis’s novel. It is a bona fide nailed-on success of British cinema that everyone who knows anything about film says you should watch. In this post, I’m going to tell you that I didn’t think it was very good, but I know nothing about filmmaking.

The film is set during the Holocaust in the area around the Auschwitz concentration camp. The central character is a fictionalised version of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of the camp. The film focuses on his domestic life in the family home next to the concentration camp, and the impact of his career progression on his family life. The viewer is never taken inside the camp, though we do hear atrocities being committed in the background of scenes, and see the rising smoke from the crematoria.

Let me first say that I streamed this at home, which was clearly not the best way to experience the film, as it translates poorly to a small screen and to TV speakers. The film often uses distant shots where the action is quite hard to make out on the small screen. The dialogue is German, and the subtitles (which are burned-in) were slightly too small to comfortably read. In many scenes, the contrast of the white text on a light background failed me. The sound design is hard to appreciate in this setting, too. If you’re going to see this, see it in a cinema.

I don’t usually engage with works of fiction about the World Wars, with some notable exceptions. I tend not to enjoy them: the totality of the experience of war is so difficult to capture that I often find them trite. I’m not therefore able to set this film in any sensible artistic context, which might mean that I’m missing a lot of what’s in it.

The film seemed to be making a point about ‘othering’. The family was portrayed as seeing Jews as a ‘problem to be solved’. The Jews who worked in the house were mostly ignored or were casually taunted in horrifying ways about the spreading of their ashes. This point was driven home by the mother-in-law character, who had a personal connection to a Jewish woman and who couldn’t hide her horror at events.

However, focusing on ‘othering’ in a context where such division is already institutionally enforced seems an odd choice. The narrative fascination with ‘othering’ typically lies in the transition into ‘otherness, a process glaringly absent here due to the pre-existing, state-imposed separation. If we accept that the Jewish community had already been ’othered’ by the state, then it somewhat lets the individual characters off the narrative hook in terms of not acknowledging the screams, the shots, the rising smoke.

It strikes me that it would have been better to use the setting to make a point about the universal nature of humanity, but this is weirdly excised. Living in a place surrounded by the sounds of atrocities would surely make people anxious about what if the screams were from this side of the wall? For example, if you were sending your children out to play in a garden where the background is gunshots and screaming, even if you’d blocked that out through continual exposure, surely you’d naturally worry that you wouldn’t hear your own injured child? And, surely, that would lead you to reflect on humanity? It’s strange that the chillingly mundane impact isn’t even observed, let alone explored.

This film doesn’t offer explanations, and nor could it: but if we take it as a work of fictionalised observation, it’s a peculiarly framed one.

Towards the end of the film, there’s a section of present-day footage of cleaners at work in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. This footage is haunting and emotive, but I think it’s entirely inappropriate to use footage of the site of death of thousands of people, as well as their personal effects, to lend emotional heft to a fictional piece. It felt immoral.

And maybe, in the end, this just wasn’t a film for me.

This post was filed under: Film, .

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