The Zone Of Interest (2023) – Movie Review


I learnt about the movie only after listening to Jonathan Glazer’s speech at the Oscars. Glazer famously 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, all the victims of this dehumanization, how do we resist?” What Glazer clearly is refuting is the “hijacking” of Jewishness and the Holocaust by Israel and its supporters, and not that he happens to be a Jew. The question he asks is correct: how do we resist dehumanization, irrespective of whether it is European Jews or Arab Palestinians? 

The movie is particularly powerful when watched against the backdrop of Israeli brutality in the Palestinian Territories. It’s a cold and extremely alienating movie. I’m sure that a lot of viewers felt the horror of the holocaust and were sick in the stomach like the main character Rudolf Höss at the end of the movie. I remember watching the movie Life is Beautiful (1997) along with a Turkish friend of mine. He liked the movie a lot. I expressed my thorough disappointment with the film. The movie is about an Italian Jewish man, played by Roberto Benigni, who is trying to preserve his son from the horrors of the concentration camp. The success of the movie was partly because it tries, not so subtly, to humanize an absolutely inhuman situation. On the contrary, The Zone of Interest gives us a real-time experience of what the horror of concentration camps is all about. We feel the presence of the victims without actually ever encountering them. While The Zone of Interest does not try to humanize the situation, it simply shows what human beings are capable of doing to one another. Through the Nazi officer we get to see what is happening to the Jews.

The entire movie is about Rudolf Höss and his family who live in a pristine house with an enviable garden, adjacent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The movie effortlessly portrays a completely normal family, living a more or less normal life that one would associate with people who enjoy a certain social and political status. This is the lifestyle one would expect of an army or police officer, a bureaucrat, a judge or a successful businessman. The horror parts of the movie are reinforced when we see how normal these people are. Like so many others working at higher levels, Rudolf Höss is simply a man who is doing his job as commandant of Auschwitz. He happens to be particularly good at it. That’s all. At some point he is promoted to the position of deputy inspector of concentration camps. Deservedly, he’s recognized for his work and is given charge of exterminating 700,000 Hungarian Jews while retaining the ones who could be useful for labor purposes. He tells his wife on the phone, “I heard Himmler’s calling it Operation Höss.” Needless to say, the wife is happy that the operation is named after him. When the wife talks to him about the party organized by the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office, Rudolf complains that he “was too busy thinking how I’d gas everyone in the room. Very difficult, logistically, because of its high ceiling.” Hedwig Höss, Rudolf’s wife is as guilty as the husband in the crimes happening in the vicinity of their happy home with a beautiful garden and fun-loving children. At no point does it strike her as mildly disturbing that so many innocent people should be massacred for no reason except that they happen to be Jews.   

In an understated way, through the use of sound and the manipulation of space to enhance the alienation effect, similar to Japanese poets and filmmakers, Glazer makes us intensely aware of the torture and gruesome murders taking place beyond the wall. Physically it is happening next door, but psychologically the main characters are hardly aware or interested in what is happening to the victims. The horror is in the cruelty and indifference to another human being’s suffering. In The Brothers Karamazov, the devil asks the hallucinating Ivan Fyodorovich, who is slowly losing his mind, “what is remorse of conscience to a man who has no conscience at all?” Dostoevsky’s novel however is an argument against such a possibility. No human being can exist without any conscience at all. But, the “hallucinatory devil” has a point: consciencelessness is the most normal thing in any social order. As Ivan puts it, “I think that if the devil does not exist, and man has therefore created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness”. 

Lack of conscience is what the symbolic devil is all about. Rudolf Höss and his wife simply lack a conscience. That’s the only way they could be normal. Saint Augustine says that evil is the absence of good. However simple that may sound, evil is a choice. To suppress one’s conscience and commit acts of evil cannot be normal by any standard. Crimes against humanity are ultimately crimes of individuals against humanity. But those crimes are not just acts committed by individuals in their private capacity. There is a whole apparatus in place for them to happen. Teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, judges, bureaucrats and politicians are complicit in the deadly crimes which a large number of people in any given situation find completely normal. 

When we speak of the innocence of civilians, we mean noncombatants or unarmed men and women who have no direct role in perpetuating violence. Otherwise, there is nothing like an “innocent” civilian. People know what is happening around them and they agree with it. They allow it to happen by not objecting to it because they see no reason why it should not happen. Israel is providing the world with a live demonstration where the state machinery and the majority of citizens are direct and indirect participants in the “plausible genocide” against the Palestinians. The IDF is simply executing the wishes of the majority of Israelis and their criminal government, just as the Nazis were reflecting German/European Anti-Semitism at its worst. 

Rudolf Höss is not an alien from another planet. He is one of us. He is “us” deep down. That’s what the movie is all about. He is not only German. He is an Israeli today. He could be Palestinian tomorrow, just as he could be English, Indian or Chinese or from any nation for that matter. What you realize is that people will betray, assault, torture, rape and murder – because it suits their interests. If they think that they can get away with it, they will do it. Period. What is worse is that they will render their tacit support to indefensible acts – either because they are afraid or because they see no reason in opposing evil. 

Whatever we call human nature is tragically flawed because it refuses to learn from the sins of the past. As Glazer said in his Oscar speech, “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.” What the Nazis did happened in the past. What the Israelis are doing is happening now. At some level, both are in the present tense. Unless we see that intrinsic connection between the past and the present there is little or no hope that there will not be another holocaust in the future. The Jews were the victims, then. Now, it could be Palestinians or some other group that is seen as a nuisance that must be exterminated at all costs.

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is an independent scholar who, until December 2022, was a professor at The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, India. He was “removed from service” for making allegations of corruption against an unscrupulous university administration and is currently challenging his dismissal in the court of law.

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