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'The Zone of Interest' Reminds Us How Horrors of the Past Can Be Weaponised

Jonathan Glazer's film won two Oscars at the recently concluded Academy Awards.

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Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest won two Oscars at the recently concluded Academy Awards. Glazer, while accepting the award for Best International Feature Film, made a pointed remark about Israel's bombing of Palestine.

"All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present — not to say, “Look what they did then,” rather, 'Look what we do now.' Our film shows where dehumanisation leads, at its worst. It shaped all of our past and present. Right now we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation, which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanisation, how do we resist?"
Jonathan Glazer

The speech went viral and led to both support and condemnation from different quarters. The condemnation predictably came from Hollywood's elites, notorious for their pro-Zionist leanings. The film, as Glazer recounted, is intended to remind us about how horrors of the past can be weaponised to inflict horrors in the present.

It is not a comfortable watch. Glazer who adapted the film from Martin Amis' novel of the same name, delves into to mass psychology of fascism via Commandant Rudolf Höss, based on a true story of a man who served at the Auschwitz concentration camp between 1940 and 1945, over two terms.

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Höss and his family lead an idyllic life, and their patterns and daily routines seem to resemble any ordinary European countryside given the first shot of the film by the lakeside. They routinely go swimming and fishing while also organising family picnics at scenic spots. But something seems off, and that's the immediate context of the Holocaust and the brutal death chambers and slave labour beyond the four walls of his household.

But Glazer doesn't show us the brutalities of the camps, at least not directly. He teases us by contrasting the framed images and sounds which brings a certain social horror-like quality to the film.

Screams of the infant son crying blend with screams of someone being tortured across the wall. Pool parties of children are contrasted with the smoke of the train bringing in thousands of cramped inmates to Auschwitz. The smoke of the constantly burning crematorium furnace punctuates the scenes with Höss's cigar smoke. Sounds of gunshots and instructions being shouted in German seem perpetual and constant to the point where one becomes numb to them.

Hedwig, Höss's wife, is a willing participant in the genocide, revelling in the spoils of the confiscated personal items belonging to Jewish and Polish prisoners, boasting about their exploits over tea parties with other dutiful Aryan wives. She proudly proclaims herself as the 'Queen of Auschwitz' to her mother who comes to visit the household.

One can't help but think of the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) soldiers enjoying the spoils of Palestinian households evacuated and burnt to the rubble. Hedwig's temper and frustrations with her husband spill over to their Jewish servants who seem too cowed and subjugated to even speak beyond necessity.

Everything is orchestrated by the Höss family with a seemingly mundane and almost nonchalant attitude. An architect with a proposal for a new furnace chamber for the crematorium is quickly corrected by his co-architect on the potential number of bodies that could be burnt in a day. The scene almost plays out like a corporate boardroom meeting about the agenda of the day.

This could be viewed as the portrayal of Hannah Arendt's banality of evil argument, i.e., how seemingly inhumane and barbaric atrocities were committed by ordinary German citizens unquestioningly with the efficiency of a well-oiled bureaucracy.  However, scholars over time critiqued this argument citing Arendt's work on Nazi Germany and the philosophy of totalitarianism in Eichmann in Jerusalem. One is compelled to remember the rabid anti-Semitism and dehumanisation of Jewish people which people like Eichmann had displayed in recorded interviews and conversations. This hate speech and dehumanisation is not hidden or glossed over but rather gets coded through certain dialogues and scenes in the film.

Höss narrates the tale of Hansel and Gretel to his daughter, who sleepwalks at night. Hansel and Gretel is one of the more famous works of the Grimm Brothers whose German Folk tales were laced with European anti-Semitic imagery of the time, with the Jew and witch as the deceptive outsiders becoming exchangeable and symbolic equivalents.

The Grimms were rabid nationalists of 19th-century Germany whose work would be appropriated by the Nazis as fodder for their nationalist ideology. The Nazis knew the importance of popular folk tales in shaping mass opinion and they readily weaponised an already problematic story to further their antisemitic propaganda.

Höss concludes the climax of the folk tale where Gretel lures and pushes the sacrificial 'witch' into the burning oven. The lines were clear for Nazism — the 'witch' (the Jew) had to be burnt in the 'oven' to protect the racial purity of noble German Aryans. Thus, while evil might as well be banal, it is necessarily premised on the systematic de-humanisation of an 'outgroup', not only through literary rhetoric (the Grimm Tales) but also visual invisibilisation — the striped inmates are littered across different scenes of domestic chores, as if their tasks may as well have been performed by cattle. 

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The film also takes a ‘lensicle’ shift when depicting a young Polish girl, in thermal imagery, resisting the fascist regime by planting apples at various digging sites near the camp for the inmates suffering from malnutrition to stumble across. Back at her home, the thermal imagery drops for a period of silence as the Polish girl mutely plays a Jewish resistance song on the piano, because in a totalitarian police state, resistance is often underground, covert, and in the shadows.

The atrocities being committed are so normalised that Höss can't think of anything else but the gassing structures even when at a high-ranking Nazi gathering in Berlin.

The film closes with a vague prologue — scenes of the present-day Auschwitz Museum being opened by cleaners interspersed with Höss struggling down the stairs as he attempts to vomit. He stares blankly into the void and the void stares right back at him. Does the cutaway to the museum in a sudden shift of frame serve to remind us of the eventual failure of the 'Final Solution'? Or that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce?

As I write this, millions of Palestinians in Gaza are under siege due to the constant bombing by Israel, with thousands dead and many more facing starvation, disease, and persecutory violence at the hands of the Israeli army.  The Israelis are currently on course to commit the very same atrocities that their ancestors survived. History, indeed, is a farce. 

[Ayushya Kaul is currently pursuing his PhD in Peace and Conflict Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia and has taught at several colleges of Delhi University (such as Sri Ram College of Commerce) as an Assistant Professor in the Economics Department. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.]

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