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‘The Zone of Interest’ and the Zone of Oscar Folly

The Zone of Interest (2023) director, Jonathan Glazer, and cast at Festival de Cannes. Wikimedia Commons.

The Zone of Interest (2023) – a co-production of the US, UK and Poland – is the latest Holocaust film to generate massive awards buzz.  It features the most solemn of locations, Auschwitz, and its notorious commandant, SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Rudolf Hess, the engine behind Auschwitz/ Birkenau from its being built in 1940 to its capture in 1945, where he oversaw the gassing and burning of more than a million Jews.  The Zone of Interest was nominated for five Oscars, including for Best Picture, International Feature (formerly the Best Foreign Language Film category), Director, Screenplay and Sound.

Generally, at this point in a full film review, there would be a spoiler alert.  In the case of The Zone of Interest, however, the only spoiler is that nothing happens.  Indeed, the sole conflict is revealed by Rudolf Hess to his wife, Hedwig, 50 minutes into the film: in 1944, after unparalleled success murdering Jews at Auschwitz, Rudolf Hess has been ordered back to Berlin to oversee all German death/concentration camps.  His family of seven, who have carved out their own paradise within earshot of the carnage, must naturally relocate with the father, leaving their large home that shares a border wall with the most notorious death camp in human history.  Their Polish maids and servants, gardens, greenhouse and swimming pool, must also be relinquished to the new commandant.  Perhaps the Hess family are the only people who ever wanted to stay at Auschwitz.

Hedwig Hess, irate when hearing the news, declares to her impassible husband at their private dock, “The’ll have to drag me out of here.”  With distant gunshots peppering her argument, she pleads, “Everything we want.  On our doorstep.”  This woman has bragged to the other officers’ wives, “Rudi calls me the Queen of Auschwitz.”  Later, after her mortified mother – whose guest-bedroom has a view of the blazing crematoria chimneys – has deserted in the middle of the night, the angry wife dispassionately taunts one of her Polish maids, “I could have my husband spread your ashes across the fields.”  Yes, Frau Hess is in hog heaven.

The dutiful husband requests from the boss that his wife and five children be allowed to stay.  The ask is granted.  Nonetheless, Hess certainly retained the key to his secret bunker where he rapes locals and scrupulously washes away the residue.  Off to Berlin Hess goes, to coordinate the liquidation of 700,000 Hungarian Jews, the last accessible Jewish population to slaughter in Europe, a project eponymously codenamed “Operation Hess.”  Alas, his replacement at Auschwitz is not up to the task, so Hess returns to manage the gassing and burning of 430,000 Hungarian Jews in 56 days.

That is the film, except for the final few minutes documenting today’s Auschwitz cleaning staff readying the museum for visitors, perhaps a favor to the Polish co-producers by their American and British cohorts.  What is missing from The Zone of Interest – indeed, what should have replaced the documentary ending of a well-trodden museum – was the fate of Rudolf Hess, the despicable man on the screen for the previous one hundred minutes.  There is simply no payoff because we are neither told nor are we shown Hess hunted down by the Brits, tried by the Poles and hung by the Soviets in 1947, surrounded by some former prisoners, the final execution at Auschwitz.  So too, the fate of Hedwig Hess – who died and was buried in Arlington, Virginia in 1989 – is untold.

Aside from the script and the plot and the editing, The Zone of Interest is a very well-made movie.  The craftsmanship is undeniable, from the sets to the cinematography to the sound design to the acting, particularly of Sandra Hüller (“Hedwig Hess”) who also gave a far different, infinitely more engaging Oscar-nominated performance in Anatomy of a Fall (2023).

The Zone of Interest can be subtle in places, as with a pool party, with the faint sound of an orchestra, surely of Auschwitz inmates, playing slave labor in and out of the camp.  The Hess children play in bed with Jewish teeth attached to bridgework and they swim in a river that gets flooded by human ashes.  So too, during Hedwig Hess’ stroll in the immense garden with her mother, distant gunshots are heard and dogs bark, implying the arrival of a transport of Jews.

But then The Zone of Interest is often too clever-by-half, starting with three minutes of black screen before another three minutes of the Hess family at a riverside picnic, in all wasting the first 6% of the film.  So too, the wife scolds her dog for chewing on something that should not have been eaten, before the editor cuts to a montage of flowers – the faint shrieks of victims overlaid – fading to red for more than 20 seconds.  These are the self-indulgent antics of a PowerPoint rookie who discovers the “Animations” tab.

Historically, too, early in the film, before the exact year is established, a set of plans for gas chambers is discussed, which is confusing in 1944, especially without knowing that this was merely a proposal to upgrade the existing tools of genocide.  Similarly, the wife beseeches her husband to maintain their “lebensraum” (living space).  Although clever, this bit assumes that moviegoers understand that “lebensraum” for greater Germany was the Nazi justification for conquering the East.  Likewise, Hedwig tells a joke to her girlfriends about getting a fur coat from “Canada,” which is a reference to “Kanada,” the areas at Auschwitz and Birkenau where prisoners’ despoiled possessions were warehoused before being shipped back to Germany.  Then the film doubles-up with the wife finding a diamond that was hidden by arriving Jews in toothpaste from Kanada, suggesting that Hedwig needs to order more.  Although all have meaning, it is misplaced here, almost as if the writers decided not to waste their Auschwitz inside jokes.

The director, British phenom Jonathan Glazer, seems to be straddling that wall between the house and camp, always wanting to show the other side, while slowly losing his footing and control of his premise.   Indeed, it is as if Glazer had his hands full and could not be bothered to investigate the real pain.  David Hepburn reported in The Scotsman, “…Glazer and his team spent three years working with the Auschwitz and Birkenau State Museum and Memorial before starting filming.  They studied pictures and firsthand testimony from victims and survivors to build up as accurate a picture of the family as possible.”

Yet, while The Zone of Interest was based on Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name about the fictional “Doll” family, Glazer used the real commandant’s name and vast swaths of Hess’ biography.  Although the commandant’s family was fictionalized to include five children instead of two, every major detail of Hess’ command is chronicled, including riding his beloved horse into the camp.  Nonetheless, inexplicably, the final credits include the following idiocy, as if the filmmakers might get sued by the Hess heirs: “The characters & incidents portrayed & the names herein are fictitious, & [sic] any similarity to the name, character or history of any person is entirely coincidental and unintentional.”  Perhaps this legal cowardice was the justification for ignoring Rudolf Hess’ hanging, as if without that scene the heirs would not have been able to prove that the movie was about their Rudolf Hess.

Amazingly, the Auschwitz Rudolf Hess was not even the most interesting of the Nazis named Rudolf Hess, the latter being Hitler’s Deputy Führer starting in 1933.  In 1941, Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess flew solo 1,800 km from central Germany to Scotland to negotiate Britain out of the war.  After evading the RAF for hours, Hess parachuted near Glasgow where he was taken prisoner and ultimately imprisoned in the Tower of London.  When Hitler heard of Deputy Führer Hess’ humiliating failure, he stripped Hess of all positions and secretly ordered him shot if Hess ever returned.  After the war, Deputy Führer Hess was convicted at the Nuremberg Trials of “crimes against peace” and “conspiracy with other German leaders to commit crimes.”  Deputy Führer Hess was among seven convicted Nazis sent to the empty Spandau Prison in 1947, the last to die – by self-hanging – 40 years later at age 93.  The prison was then destroyed, its stones dropped into the North Sea, and a shopping mall built on its grounds.  The band “Spandau Ballet” got its name from apocryphal graffiti scrawled on a Berlin wall in 1978: “Rudolf Hess, all alone, dancing the Spandau Ballet.”  Now that’s a story.

The Zone of Interest has been compared to the greatest Holocaust film ever made, Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone (2001), and its Hungarian rip off, Son of Saul (2015), winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar.  These are lazy comparisons, aside from The Zone of Interest having poached from both films the ambient sound of persistently churning crematoria.  Further, these comparisons trivialize the victims’ point-of-view, suggesting that the Holocaust can be seen from the perpetrator’s perspective.  It has also been compared to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008), a hideous film about the same family, including the aghast mother-in-law.  Although there are some similarities, The Zone of Interest is simply a failure to execute the premise, not a failure of decency.

Notwithstanding The Zone of Interest’s ineptitude, recognizing Holocaust films at the Oscars is laughably ordinary.  Of the previous 80 American-produced or co-produced Holocaust-related features released since the end of the Holocaust, 21 others had won or been nominated for at least one Oscar, with a grand total of 109 Oscar wins or nominations.  This extraordinary Oscar-recognition is unparalleled by any other film genre.  Further, 23 foreign (non-American) Holocaust-related films from 1960 through 2015 were nominated for 41 other Oscars, with 20 nominations for the Best Foreign Language award, of which eight won.  This accounting does not include Holocaust shorts, which have also been prominent at Oscar, including this year’s nominee Letter to a Pig (2022) and winner Toyland – Spielzeugland (2007), a film so misleading that it has become a favorite pedagogical tool of mine to examine the rewriting of history.

Add The Zone of Interest to those lists.  Most of the other nine best picture nominees were far more interesting and creative than was The Zone of Interest.  Nonetheless, given the Academy’s obsession with Holocaust films, as with the inane Jojo Rabbit (2019) which receive five nominations, I correctly predicted that The Zone of Interest would win the Best International Feature award even without having seen its four competitors.  Afterall, it has been eight years since Son of Saul’s victory a few years after the very courageous Ida (2013) was nominated and more than a dozen years since the magnificent Inglourious Basterds (2009) won Best Actor and garnered seven other nods.

Unfortunately, in Glazer’s shakily read acceptance speech, he equated “the occupation” to genocide, displaying on an international stage his faulty grasp of both.  Failing to acknowledge the more than one hundred remaining Israeli hostages, the rape by Hamas of women and children which has even been recognized by the UN, the intentional slaughter by Hamas of non-combatants, including of Palestinian civilians behind whom they hide, and Hamas’ vow to replicate the October 7th attack until its genocidal “River to the Sea” goal is achieved, Glazer clearly learned nothing of substance when making The Zone of Interest.  His disinterest in (i.e., detachment from) the victims is pervasive, suggesting that no history existed before his sentience, plainly unaware of the five times that the Arabs and Palestinians have refused to take “yes” for an answer to any state for the Jews or any Palestine with Jews: the 1936 Peel Commission, the 1947 UN Partition, the 1967 Khartoum “Three Noes,” the 2000 Camp David 2, and the offer made by Ehud Olmert to Mahmoud Abbas in 2008.  As with Glazer’s film, he obviously has only a glancing comprehension of “Judenfrei” and the Jewish struggle on the other side of the wall.  Although not a Redgrave moment at the podium, Glazer’s ignorance will mar his legacy.

The Zone of Interest’s filmmakers could have expressed so much about one of the Holocaust’s greatest questions: what kind of a person could have committed genocide?  But that would have required a moral compass.  Indeed, rarely have I seen a film squander so much potential.  With simple, courageous editing and focused producers, The Zone of Interest could have been excellent had it stuck to Hess’ life and death, while backing away from the schtick.  Now, it is simply an overhyped, missed opportunity to have made great art about a really bad man.  Hopefully now Glazer and Co. will use their fame and experience to make a great film about another bad man, Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess.

Since moving to Israel in 2003, after a career in Hollywood, Rich Brownstein has lectured worldwide about Jewish and Holocaust films, including for six years at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.  He is the author of Holocaust Cinema Complete: A History and Analysis of 400 Films, with a Teaching Guide, 2021, McFarland Press, also available on Kindle.  His website is HolocaustFilms.com.
About the Author
After a career in Hollywood, Rich Brownstein has lectured worldwide about Jewish and Holocaust films, including for six years at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies. He is the author of "Holocaust Cinema Complete: A History and Analysis of 400 Films, with a Teaching Guide," 2021, McFarland Press. Rich was honored as the keynote speaker in June 2022 at the 36th Annual Conference of the Association of Holocaust Organizations in Charlotte, and as a speaker at the Association of Jewish Libraries’ annual conference in Philadelphia, and at the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University on Yom HaShoah. He has also been a guest on many podcasts and webinars, and have presented virtually for numerous organizations, including the American Jewish University, B’nai B’rith International, Classrooms Without Borders, the International March of the Living, the National Library of Israel and UCLA. He also presented a webinar for Echoes & Reflections, the joint project of Yad Vashem, the Anti-Defamation League, and the USC Shoah Foundation. Many of his articles have been published in The Jerusalem Post and he has been quoted, as well, in the New York Times. Rich was honored by Israeli President Isaac Herzog in recognition of his book and dedication to Holocaust education.