Rivy Poupko Kletenik

Do Not Go to See, ‘Zone of Interest’

That was my gut reaction when I met a high schooler right after seeing the 2023 film. It is up for five Academy Awards this Sunday. The person with him protested that it was an excellent film, and he should see it. No, I said with some not uncommon confidence. This is not a film for young Jewish person to see – if they have not yet studied the Shoah.

“Zone of Interest,” though it deserves cinematic accolades, is just not good for the souls of our young people. It plays with viewers in a diabolical way. As movie watchers, we are in our seats poised to sympathize with the characters in the films we are watching – in this case, the Höss family. Let me assure you – not one of the central characters deserves our compassion, nor our human-to-human identification.

The film, based on the book by the same name, written by Martin Amis, tells the story of the notorious Rudolph Höss, commandant, from May 1940 to November 1943 and May 1944 to January 1945, of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the German Nazi complex of over forty concentration and extermination camps from 1940 -1945. In his own confession made at Nuremberg on 5 April 1946, Höss acknowledges his role, “I commanded Auschwitz…and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total of about 3,000,000 dead.”

Here is the issue, we never see the horrors of what is transpiring in Auschwitz. We only observe the Höss family in their villa adjacent to the death camp along with their guests and their house servants. We notice the iconic barbed wire topped wall, surrounding the camp. We are asked to be horrified not by the barbaric murder machine taking place in the camp but rather, we, the audience, are made to feel the revulsion that the family experiences when ash turns up in their bathtub, to recoil as Höss finds an unsavory bone in the river as he with his family are enjoying an idyllic romp on a summer day. “Get out quick” our brains whisper to the screen.

Höss’ mother-in-law visits, she can’t handle it – smelling the smoke, breathing the ash, hearing the bullets is too much for her – I mean after all, she had been the house cleaner for a Jewish woman. Might her former employer be over the fence, she wonders? She packs up and leaves.


What does it mean when we focus entirely on the picaresque lives of the perpetrators of atrocities? When we begin to feel for the Höss family, the children, the visiting mother-in-law?

This is the tension. In a keen Hitchcock-esque technique, Jonathan Glazer succeeds in terrifying us mightily as we catch ourselves in our pity for the Höss family.

Höss hears that he will be transferred from this idyllic life next to Auschwitz. We are almost moved when his wife, Hedwig tears up at the thought of losing her lush garden, her charming swimming pool, and trellises with blossoming flowers – not to mention the kohlrabi growing the vegetable patch. She begs to be allowed to stay in this Eden.

Luckily, after a short transfer, “Operation Höss” will soon be activated, murdering 434,000 Hungarian Jews between May 15 and July 9, 1944. The Höss family is reunited in their dreamy home.

At this point in the film, I lose control – you see those invisible people, which we experience only as smoke bellowing out of the heinous iconic chimney pillars? They are family, transported and executed with unequaled efficiency.

Though not suitable for those not conversant in the atrocities of the Holocaust, perhaps this neat trick of not seeing the explicit horror is the very point that writer and director, Jonathan Glazer is aiming for. It is a metaphor. It’s not just the Höss family living in denial, it’s all those who dwell near Auschwitz, townspeople in Oswiecim, in Nazi occupied Poland, it’s all the bystanders who live in proximity to the 44,000 Nazi incarceration sites, including death camps and ghettoes and the world who averted their eyes from the genocide taking place – all were part of this game of denial.

And what of those custodians at the end of the film? They sweep and dust the displays in Auschwitz -the museum. Is the routinized exposure to gruesomeness also a biting metaphor? Are we all complicit in the everydayness of our acceptance of horror?

About the Author
Rivy Poupko Kletenik, a 2002 Exceptional Jewish Educator Covenant Award Winner, just completed sixteen years as Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. Rivy is an enthusiastic writer and devotee of poetry and literature. Her column “What’s Your JQ” appeared for years in the JT News and then “Jewish in Seattle Magazine” and she is thrilled and proud to be awarded the Simon Rockower American Jewish Press Association Excellence in Commentary.
Related Topics
Related Posts