Андрей Алферов
Film scholar, director, curator
Liberal Arts
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A COMFORTING NIGHTMARE: How «The Zone of Interest» won two Oscars

Иллюстрация Беатрис Вильяфлор
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Illustration by Beatriz Villaflor / dailynorthwestern.com

 

German philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote his famous words about the impossibility of art after Auschwitz, calling it barbaric.

Jonathan Glazer’s drama «THE ZONE OF INTEREST» (2023), which won two Oscars (Best International Film and Best Sound) after Cannes silver, is not just an example of art (and even high art) after Auschwitz but also art about Auschwitz.

It is a chemically pure, great film that raises modern themes (the return of bloody times) based on historical material. On the screen is the everyday life of the family of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, whose name has long been synonymous with the term «Holocaust» itself.

Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their five children live in a cozy paradise with green lawns, flowerbeds, bushes of gorgeous flowers, a garden, and a swimming pool, oblivious to the rumbling and smoking hell next door.

The Holocaust theme long ago became a noble frame for violent and not so violent melodramas. Forgetting the words of Theodor Adorno, the popular industry has long ago set up a mass production of boutique, degreed dramas that do not disturb the viewer’s personal comfort — from «Life is Beautiful» with «The Zookeeper’s Wife» to «The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas».

Only the most courageous artists dared to experiment daringly in this area, disregarding viewer comfort and political correctness.

Wanda Jakubowska was the first to bring the full horror of the Holocaust onto the screen in order to deal with the causes that gave rise to it. The moral right to make a film about it was given to the director by the fact that in the past, she herself had been a prisoner of Auschwitz and Ravensbrück. «The Last Stage» (1947) was filmed on the concentration camp grounds with local people in the role of camp guards. The idea for the film came to Wanda Jakubowska while she was still in prison, and another prisoner, Gerda Schneider, helped her write the script.

 

Барбара Драпиньска (Марта) в фильме «Последний этап»
Barbara Drapińska (Marta) in the film «The Last Stage» / imdb.com

 

Traveling through the ruined Auschwitz opens the short film «Night and Fog» (1955) by Frenchman Alain Resnais. Taking as a signpost the name of Hitler’s directive, which allowed to kidnap with impunity anti-Nazi activists in all occupied territories, Resnais, who a few years later will shoot his masterpiece about other horrors of the Second World War («Hiroshima, Mon Amour» 1959), cleverly montages scenes of comfortable SS life with mountains of corpses at the gas chambers.

«The banality of evil», as Hannah Arendt will formulate the described Renais in a couple of years. The shock of «Night and Fog» was so great that the German Embassy in France even tried to disrupt the Cannes premiere. But without success.

Shocking causes and chronicle, filmed in 1945 by a young Alfred Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein, based on documents from the archives of British, American, and Soviet intelligence. The film based on it, «Night Will Fall» (2014), directed by Andre Singer, contains gruesome scenes of camp life and what was left there after the Nazis fled, apparently in an effort to destroy traces of their crimes. After the British government banned Hitchcock and Bernstein’s chronicle from being shown, it sat on the shelf for 70 years before being made into a separate film.

Three films — Claude Lanzmann’s «Shoah» (1985), Steven Spielberg’s «Schindler’s List» (1993), and Laszlo Nemes’ «Son of Saul» (2015) — have set a definite aesthetic trend on the subject of the Holocaust.

In his unbearably beautiful and uncomfortable film, Lanzmann — a thinker, an associate of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir — asking Theodor Adorno the same question, gives a collective portrait of the participants in the terrible events and witnesses — from members of the Sonderkommando, guards and functionaries of the Third Reich to ordinary Poles who lived nearby and watched as the echelons, one by one, arrived at Treblinka, Auschwitz, Chelmno; and, in fact, the drivers of those «deadly» trains. Without actually showing anything (there is not a single chronicle in the film), «Shoah» literally leaves a burn, provokes a heart attack.

 

Кадр из фильма «Список Шиндлера»
A shot from the film «Schindler’s List» / imdb.com

 

«Schindler’s List» has been on the top for years, having become a classic at birth. Criticized for being overly optimistic and somewhat «fairy tale», Spielberg’s film about a German businessman, party boy, and playboy who saved more than 1,000 Jews was so revolutionary that it defined the aesthetics of Holocaust dramas for years to come.

Right up to «Son of Saul», which set a whole new aesthetic level. And maybe a new level of horror, too. After all, crowned with an Oscar («Best International Film») and a Cannes Grand Prix, the debut drama by Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes is nothing less than a report from an absolute hell, where dwells the sullen and battered protagonist, a Hungarian Jew, a member of the Sonderkommando, serving the work of the stinking factory of death.

A hand-held camera ghosts around the protagonist, who, in the midst of this inhuman space, suddenly dreams of a past quiet life and an illegitimate son, whose body he now intends to take with him on his escape. To bury him properly, with a prayer. To bury it so that he could remain human. Not to survive but to remain human.

 

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«The Zone of Interest», which Steven Spielberg called «the second best Holocaust film after mine», is aiming to become the fourth such trendsetter drama in history. A film about the Holocaust is not just a creative gesture for Glazer, a British-born Jewish filmmaker, but a personal statement.

Based on Martin Amis’s eponymous novel, he tackles the subject exclusively through the atmosphere — cold to the point of sterility, offering the viewer a session of horrifying voyeurism and two films instead of one.

The first is a life story about the family of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, with surgically calibrated camera choreography and detailed, frontally shot mise-en-scène (Glaser filmed his actors with hidden cameras carefully concealed on the set, with almost no close-ups). Flawlessly unemotional, the chilling film leaves the viewer alone with their critical thinking.

 

Кадр из фильма «Зона интересов»
A shot from the film «The Zone of Interest» / imdb.com

 

The second film is a quasi-documentary sound reportage (Tarn Willers and Johnny Burn won an Oscar for their work) from hell itself, disregarding the viewer’s comfort. All we hear are the terrified screams of the victims, the gunshots, and the clanking of metal. There is no clarity in the montage to suggest the correct emotion to the viewer, no comfort, and no emotional support.

The author puts us in the awkward position of an accidental witness to the horror, peeking at the characters (who are the beneficiaries of that horror) from a safe place.

«The Zone of Interest» is a dissonance film that makes it almost impossible to get emotionally disturbed. The horrifying sound score here rhymes with Höss’s morbid cleanliness and pedantry, the abundance of white in the frame, the impassioned mechanistic musings on methods of improving the technology of extermination of the camp’s prisoners, and the desperate desire of Höss’s wife to preserve their garden of Eden at all costs when the news of her husband’s transfer due to promotion comes; with the serene play of the children, one of whom is fiddling with soldiers and the other with a collection of gold teeth.

The director does not fall into dramatisation and does not limit himself to dry documentation. This is not just a historical film, not just high art about Auschwitz after Auschwitz. It is an attempt to understand today’s bloody age and the nature of the present evil, which is still so inexplicable.

Glaser mixes the past with the present, truth, and visibility and speaks about things terribly uncomfortable for the modern man: his subconscious desire to turn away from tragedy, to erase from his everyday life any mention of horror and tragedy, to sanitize history itself with its dark stains.

 

A COMFORTING NIGHTMARE: How «The Zone of Interest» won two Oscars
A shot from the film «The Zone of Interest» / imdb.com

 

The uncomfortable is cleaned up here — swept, washed, and hoovered. Only if visitors could see the artifacts (suitcases, shoes, clothes) that have been left without their owners for eighty years. Glazer’s film itself is also uncomfortable, posing the question of how to survive and maintain some vestiges of ethics and conscience in this world.

The Cannes jury limited it to the Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI award, preferring to give the competition gold to «Anatomy of a Fall», a drama that does not encroach on the comfort zone. However, Glazer did not attack the atomized audience’s comfort with his film alone, but also with the speech he made during the Oscar ceremony.

An ethnic Jew, the director, who wore a Palestine support badge on his jacket lapel, «did not renounce his Jewishness» but opposed «Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people» A hint of Israel’s actions in Gaza.

A terrible uproar turned to words, «Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst. It’s shaped all of our past and present. Whether it is the victims of October 7 in Israel or the victims of the ongoing attack on Gaza, they are all victims of dehumanisation. How do we confront this?»

 

— It is true that my family had a good life in Auschwitz. Every wish of my wife and children was fulfilled. The children could play freely, my wife had so many favorite flowers that she felt like in paradise, Rudolf Höss wrote in 1946, a year before his execution in a Polish prison. — In Auschwitz, like in paradise…

 


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