“The Zone of Interest” and the Peril of Banality

At a time when Jews face rising antisemitism in the U.S. and around the world, the film "The Zone of Interest" addresses the chilling consequences of indifference.
February 15, 2024

At a time when Jews face rising antisemitism in the U.S. and around the world, the film “The Zone of Interest” addresses the chilling consequences of indifference. The film does not do so, however, through the usual depiction of Holocaust victims or the atrocities they faced. Instead, it focuses on the life of the Nazi commander Rudolf Höss, who lived just outside the walls of Auschwitz with his family. In this way, the entire film centers on absence: not just the absence of Jews, but the absent conscience and basic humanity of their oppressors.

The film juxtaposes images of the Nazi commander’s family frolicking joyfully in the sunshine with those of a young girl from a neighboring home who sneaks out at night to hide food for the forced labor prisoners from the concentration camp. These sequences, shot as night vision, offer an eerie depiction of the “inside-out” nature of a world where evil flourishes boldly in the bright light of day, while goodness must do its work under the cover of darkness. Yet, with the unique cinematic rendering through night vision, the girl appears white and luminous as the angelic presence she truly is. On one such night, she finds a round tin containing a folded piece of paper. As she reaches for it in the dirt, it shines: a tiny sun lost in the dark depths of the earth. Indeed, it is just that, since the contents contain a song written by Auschwitz prisoner Joseph Wulf, entitled “Sunbeams.”  

The next day, with a shaft of light filtering into the room behind her, the young girl sits at the piano and tentatively plays the notes of the song: “Sunbeams, radiant and warm/ Human bodies, young and old/ who are imprisoned here, Our hearts are yet not cold.” With her act of goodness, she rescues these words, this music and this hope, ushering it back into the light of day where it belongs. 

This is in stark contrast to the other moment of live music in the film, when a Nazi orchestra plays in a bandshell to an almost empty audience. Only two maimed soldiers look on in a wintry landscape. Their missing limbs suggest the imminent demise of the Nazi regime, and their grotesqueness mirrors the warped souls of those who command them.

Famously, the Nazis, including Höss, upon whom the film is based, justified their actions by saying they were “just following orders.” Yet, the simple, clandestine actions of one nameless girl clearly indicate that even the most young and powerless in society are always able to exercise moral agency. She is the living proof of the possibility of choice, no matter the circumstances.

How much more so is the man who is selected to oversee the transport and murder of tens of thousands. The film reminds the viewer time and again that he and his family choose their oblivion. While their laundry flutters in the breeze, they frolic in the garden with their guests at picnics, as the ashes of thousands rise into the sky behind them. We are later reminded that the stench from the crematoria must no doubt have filled the air. In the household of the young girl who places apples for the prisoners, her mother abruptly closes the window, then hurries to pull the clean laundry off the line, as she registers the smell. The audience cannot quite share the palpable horror of this experience—how can one transmit smell on film?—and yet, as with all the other absences in the film, the mere suggestion is more horrible than any evocation. 

This visceral awareness of the proximity of death also occurs earlier, when Höss takes his younger children swimming in the seemingly idyllic river near their home. He soon realizes that human remains have made their way into the water, and not only does he usher his children home to be scrubbed clean, but we see him clear his own nostrils of ashes. There is no escape from the consequences of his evil. Though it may not have penetrated his conscience, it has seeped into the very crevices of his body and that of his children.

The film suggests that this kind of cruelty, once it is unleashed, cannot be so easily directed against only the Jews.

Moreover, his moral contamination has infiltrated his family in ways he could not have imagined. In the final scene with Höss’s sons, the older one, dressed in his Hitler Youth uniform, locks his younger brother in the greenhouse. He then sits outside the door, watching and grinning with pleasure as his brother cries and begs to be released. The film suggests that this kind of cruelty, once it is unleashed, cannot be so easily directed against only the Jews. The evil planted in his children is the legacy that Höss leaves. Near the end of the film, Höss himself looks out on a room of Nazi elites at a party, and reflects on the problem of how they could be gassed in that space, given the height of the ceilings. It is clear that a mind, once warped by evil, is a force that can no longer be contained. It will cannibalize itself and all that it once loved. 

The final images of the film show Höss descending a staircase alone, pausing at the landings to cough and retch (are his lungs filled with the ashes of the prisoners after all these years?). He descends the final set of stairs and is swallowed by the darkness. As we watch him vanish, we have the sense that this is his ultimate punishment: not just infamy, or execution, but oblivion. The seeming beauty of his life with his family at the start of the film is undercut here, as is the hubris of the Thousand-Year Reich. Its defeat is embodied by the fate of this one man: a life and a regime built on a foundation of ashes.

The film is ultimately not just about the banality of evil, but also the perils of banality in general. We have a tendency to be distracted by the ordinary concerns and routines of our lives, which numb us to atrocities in our midst. In our era, this self-absorption has risen to a dangerous pitch; we have become trivial creatures and the film alerts us to the stakes of this kind of blindness. It ends with the jarring images of the cleaning crews at Auschwitz in the present day as they vacuum and wash and sweep the sites of humanity’s greatest horrors: stacks of shoes behind glass, the empty barracks and corroded machinery of the crematoria. These final images impress upon us the importance of being not complacent in the face of memory either. The film suggests that, while it is easier than we might imagine to ignore evil in real time, it is even easier to forget those evils once they slip quietly into the shadows of history. And that is when “Never Again” becomes “Now.”

Suzanne Socken has taught English and drama for over 20 years in both Canada and the U.S. She is currently Co-Chair of the English Department at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.

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