OPINION: A Holocaust masterpiece I will never watch again

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OPINION: A Holocaust masterpiece I will never watch again

Writer and journalist Darren Richman reflects on the visceral power of 'The Zone of Interest', the film Steven Spielberg describes as 'the best Holocaust movie since my own'

The Zone of Interest is like nothing you’ve ever seen, because nothing is. Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up to ‘Under the Skin’ was ten years in the making and saw the filmmaker repeatedly come close to abandoning the project altogether. Indeed, his parents begged him not to make it. It is, by design, the most ethical narrative feature film made about the horrors of the Holocaust. It is a masterpiece I have no intention of ever watching again.

This is the banality of evil made flesh, as we follow Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss and his wife attempting to achieve domestic bliss with their young family in a home bordering Auschwitz concentration camp. Glazer, who has confessed he was too nervous to speak to survivors while preparing the film for fear of what they might make of the project, has made an art film that feels closer to a video exhibit in an art gallery than Life is Beautiful.

It is quite clear the director felt any kind of conventional three act structure would be crass and, using a combination of improvisation and hidden cameras while filming on location in Auschwitz, he created what he dubbed “Big Brother in the Nazi house”. The events presented in the film we see might be entirely mundane but what we hear, not far away, are the sounds of unimaginable horror. Not for nothing has Glazer described the sound design as “the other film” and “arguably, the film”.

Darren Richman.

Glazer chose not to embellish or invent. The real Höss actually hired someone to rev a motorcycle engine in order to overshadow the sound of gunshots and screams coming from the camp and so that is what we hear. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List focused on a thousand people saved to tell the story of six million lives lost but The Zone of Interest finds a way to capture the latter in a way that leaves one feeling overcome by despair. There is room for both approaches and Spielberg is on record as describing Glazer’s achievement as, “The best Holocaust movie since my own.”

I saw ‘The Zone of Interest’ at the London Film Festival in October and my reaction was visceral; I was overwhelmed by a pounding headache for the duration. No amount of trigger warnings could have prepared me for the space between what we see and what we do not and the way in which I would, inevitably, think of my grandfather and what he endured beyond those walls.

The most effective horror movies in history have tended to leave as much as possible to the imagination and Glazer has tackled the most horrific events of the last century with the same modus operandi. Here is the horror of humanity turning a blind eye.

When my grandfather would share his testimony with young people and warn about the dangers of hatred and racism, he would make a point of mentioning that these atrocities were not carried out by ignorant people but by doctors, lawyers and accountants. In Zigi’s own words:

“Every day I ask myself how human beings could possibly behave that way and then sit down with their wife and children. How could they eat dinner? How could they listen to music?”

Some have complained that the film humanises the Nazis but the point is that they were human. We are let off the hook if we allow ourselves to simply imagine those capable of such acts as inhuman monsters closer to something from a fairly tale than those that walk among us. We can lie to ourselves and pretend these people were uniquely evil or we can accept the reality of human history. The characters in The Zone of Interest close their eyes to what is happening around them but we should be on our guard and be sure not to make the same mistake.

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