The Zone of Interest and Holocaust moralizing

This piece was co-authored by Joshua Yunis, a filmmaker in based in Los Angeles, and Judah Bernstein, a law student.

You never see the victims in the much-acclaimed new Holocaust film, The Zone of Interest. Even at its conclusion, as the film leaps forward in time to the Auschwitz museum in the present day, it avoids any visual depiction of those who suffered at the hands of the film’s protagonists. The decision not to portray the victims of Nazi extermination was an effective one for this film, the focus of which was squarely on its perpetrators and collaborators. To speak over those victims at an award ceremony, however, was decidedly not.

Since October 7th, defenders and excoriators of Israel have both rushed to enlist the Holocaust in service of their cause. Jewish Pro-Israel voices have been quick to associate that terrible tragedy with the Holocaust, seeing the violence of that dark day as confirmation of the necessity of a Jewish state. “Never again is now” or some variation of this sentiment is shared by a wide swath of the Israeli public and larger Jewish world, not merely its current right-of-center government (see, for instance, the open letter response to the speech recently put out by hundreds of Jewish Hollywood professionals here). Pro-Palestine voices, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have countered with accusations against Israel of genocide, construing Israel’s response to October 7th as a reiteration of the worst ills of World War II once visited upon stateless Jews. “Zionism is Nazism” was not coined in 2023, but it seems to have taken on new life in the aftermath of 10/7.

Jonathan Glazer, director of the film The Zone of Interest, has taken note, or at least has taken note exclusively of the discursive abuses of one side. Upon accepting the Oscar for Best International Film, Glazer said: “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.”

The Zone of Interest is a deeply-researched film. In a dual sense, the film is about the House of Höss: the patriarch of the Höss family, and Camp Auschwitz’s commandant, Rudolf, and the Höss matriarch, Hedwig; and the bucolic manor that the Höss family inhabits just beyond the camp’s walls. Glazer must have consulted reams of survivor testimony to pull off his meticulous reconstruction of the Höss family’s life.

Sadly, he seems to have overlooked the contradictory worldviews that Holocaust survivors themselves embraced as a result of their suffering, worldviews that have come to animate the debates over the Israel-Palestine conflict to this very day. The imperative of securing Jewish life in the Holocaust’s wake via a nation-state, on the one hand, and the necessity of international laws and institutions that country’s must abide by, on the other – both captured the sensibilities of the Holocaust’s victims. Nationalism and universalism, political power and political liberalism, majoritarian sovereignty and human rights, they all held appeal among survivors. There was the ghetto partisan hero turned Haganah fighter Abba Kovner, there was the cosmopolitan critic Hannah Arendt, there were many in between, and some who were a little bit of each.

Glazer objects to how the Holocaust has been “hijacked,” but can he really be sure that Holocaust survivors themselves, several of whom were actually murdered on October 7th, wouldn’t support the interpretation of the Holocaust he so protests? And if the survivors themselves drew conflicting political and moral lessons about their traumatic experiences, on what ground might he, a student of that history but in no way its subject, endorse one lesson to the exclusion of another?

Clumsy Holocaust moralizing doesn’t just risk the elision of how some survivors made sense of their suffering. It also manages to trivialize it. Viewed from the safe distance of the 21st century, in fact, it is doubtful the Holocaust can contain any teleology at all. The more we discover about the catastrophe’s history, the less reason there seems to have been for the terrible suffering Jews endured other than the fact that they were Jews. Many lessons have been broached to adumbrate the Jews’ ordeal, and yet, after 80 years those lessons still seem to fall miserably short of the impossible tasks of making sense of the Holocaust.

And yet, notwithstanding the cross-cutting lessons survivors drew from the Holocaust, and notwithstanding the incomprehensibility of the suffering of the Holocaust generation to our 21st century eyes, Jews seem to be expected nowadays, and sometimes seem to demand from their fellow Jews in turn, to articulate the One Lesson that has come to be deemed the true and correct one. It is greatly disappointing that the director of one of the most incisive movie depictions of the Holocaust in recent times has joined this moralizing morass. It’s doubly a shame because the unknowability of the Holocaust, rather than its cheap and easy fablization, happens to be a central concern of The Zone of Interest.

The film contains within it a contradiction: some aspects of Rudolf and Hedwig’s personality traits, as portrayed in the film, are instantly and universally recognizable to us. They enjoy leisure time with family and friends even as they live in proximity to injustice. They confuse their self-interest with virtue. They see themselves as doing all the right things to get ahead. When Rudolf is going to be relocated away from Auschwitz, his wife tells him he should speak directly to his boss, Adolf Hitler. She implores him not to relocate the Höss family from their idyllic life which just so happens to be in ear’s shot of a death camp. In this sense, it is an important film about the ability for all of us to be complicit in atrocities, a message Glazer himself explicitly intended with the film.

But at the same time, the film presents a version of Rudolf and Hedwig Höss that is totally inaccessible. The film ushers you through the quotidian existence of the family, yet even as it does so, the camera always remains at a remove from the characters, often taking up a perch in the most confined corner of a room in the Höss estate. That angle urges the viewer to take an anthropological approach to the Höss clan, but also forbids the viewer from ever actually entering the interior lives of Rudolf, Hedwig, or any of the other Hösses. The proximity of the Hösses to the crematorium, their casual pillaging of Jewish property, the ritualized cleaning of their children after they come in contact with the remains of cremated Jews, the time Rudolf ponders the most efficient way to gas a room of Nazi colleagues – these are not merely normal people complicit by virtue of their passivity, swept up by forces larger than themselves. They are the active architects of genocide whose madness and psychosis is impenetrable and, on some level, ultimately unknowable.

Unknowable too, per the film, is the suffering of Rudolf’s and Hedwig’s victims. Departing from virtually every Holocaust movie that came before it, The Zone of Interest makes no attempt at depicting that suffering onscreen. The audible agonies of the camp provide a disturbing din that lurks just beyond frame throughout the film, and there is a plethora of allusions to the suffering that other Holocaust movies have made so iconic. But Glazer seems to be saying that a film camera cannot possibly do justice to the anguish the victims of the Holocaust endured, and to try otherwise would result only in that suffering’s diminishment.

Glazer claims his directorial choices came out of a desire to “remove the artifice and conventions of filmmaking” in the hopes of avoiding the ways “cinema fetishizes, glamorizes, and empowers.” But the Zone of Interest revels in style and art-house flourishes, often to great effect. It contains jarring thermal imaging photography, it holds on screens of black and red for unusually long amounts of time, it features a sudden montage of garden flowers. Nothing here is stripped of artifice – nothing in cinema ever can be. And so Glazer’s intentions with the film do not simply make them so, and it’s possible that the film is working at odds with – or in more complicated ways than – the filmmaker’s stated objectives.

This is as true about its historical lessons as it is about its formal technique. As is so often the case in today’s discourse around Israel-Palestine, Glazer’s Oscar speech rendered Holocaust memory as an abstraction, a lesson from which to learn, rather than the lived experience of people some of whom are still alive today. Either Holocaust memory is open to interpretation by all of its victims, or by none at all. The abuse of Holocaust memory is either worthy of condemnation on all sides, or by none at all.

By invoking both his Jewishness and Holocaust memory, Glazer falls prey to the very pitfalls he studiously tries to avoid in the film – fetishization, glamorization, and cheap mythologizing. In so doing, he robs the Shoah’s victims of their humanity anew: first as victims, and now as parable. But the Shoah’s victims, then, as now, are human beings, with flaws and dreams just like anyone else. If only Glazer was as conscientious about avoiding the fetishization of the Shoah’s victims with his words as he was about the fetishization of its perpetrators with his camera. Instead, the now-infamous Oscars speech landed more like a different kind of genre altogether: exploitation.

About the Author
Judah Bernstein holds a PhD in history from NYU and is currently pursuing a JD at NYU School of Law.
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