Rudolf Höss was the commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp who lived with his family close to the camp. Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest, a favorite to win at the Cannes Festival, tells Höss' story, but fails to address the true inhumanity of Nazism, says Die Welt's film critic.
BERLIN — This garden is the pride and joy of Hedwig, the housewife. She has planned and laid out everything — the vegetable beds and fruit trees and the greenhouse and the bathtub.
Her kingdom is bordered on one long side by a high, barbed-wire wall. Gravel paths lead to the family home, a two-story building with clean lines, no architectural frills. Her husband praises her when he comes home after work, and their three children — ages two to five — play carefree in the little "paradise," as the mother calls her refuge.
The wall is the outer wall of the concentration camp Auschwitz; in the "paradise" lives the camp commander Rudolf Höss with his family.
The film is called The Zone of Interest — after the German term "Interessengebiet," which the Nazis used to euphemistically name the restricted zone around Auschwitz — and it is a favorite among critics at this week's Cannes Film Festival.
The audacity of director Jonathan Glazer's style takes your breath away, and it doesn't quickly come back.
It is a British-Polish production in which only German is spoken. The real house of the Höss family was not directly on the wall, but some distance away, but from the upper floor, Höss's daughter Brigitte later recalled, she could see the prisoners' quarters and the chimneys of the old crematorium.
Glazer moved the house right up against the wall for the sake of his experimental arrangement, a piece of artistic license that can certainly be justified.
And so one watches the Höss family go about their daily lives: guiding visitors through the little garden, splashing in the tub, eating dinner in the house, being served by the domestic help, who are all silent prisoners. What happens behind the wall, they could hear and smell. They must have heard and smelled it. You can see the red glow over the crematorium at night. You hear the screams of the tortured and the shots of the guards. The Höss family blocks all this out.
Many possibilities, no explanations
Here's the first question The Zone of Interest doesn't answer. Doesn't even try to answer: is this ignorance? Of course it isn't. Is it not wanting to know? Sure, but that's not enough of an explanation. Is it conscious approval based on racist and nationalist delusion? I'm sure it is.
Is it longing for an idyll in the midst of a situation perceived as threatening? Without a doubt. Is it the pride of the petty bourgeoisie that has managed to achieve a higher status which they do not want to endanger by letting the murder of millions get to them?
There are many attempts at an explanation, but they don't really interest Jonathan Glazer. In a very free adaptation of Martin Amis' novel of the same name, Glazer describes the situation in what is possibly more oppressive than anything we've seen in Holocaust films before.
It concentrates in one garden the attitude of an entire nation that wanted to know nothing: from the civilians on the "home front" who one morning saw the Jews of their town walking in long lines to a gathering point, to the soldiers of the supposedly so honorable Wehrmacht, to the servants of the Reichsbahn who put the trains to the death camps on the track.
The essence of humanity
For half an hour, maybe even three quarters of an hour, one watches this tremendous ignoring of reality and elimination of conscience with increasing perplexity. But at some point — if Glazer's concept is crystal clear to you — you ask yourself if this can be enough. There is little development in the permanent horror.
Hedwig's mother, who comes to visit, can't stand the smell and the hell-light and flees on the first night. Hedwig herself rebels once against the slavish obedience to the fatherland and the family head when her husband is threatened with transfer — but it is not a rebellion of conscience, but one against the imposition of having to give up her "paradise."
Somehow Glazer must have sensed that this one perspective is not sufficient after all, and so he shows — as if shot with a night vision camera — a girl from the resistance hiding food for forced laborers under cover of darkness (but otherwise not appearing in the film).
Glazer's last feature film to date was called Under the Skin, in which an extraterrestrial — played by Scarlett Johannsen — seeks out men in Scotland and destroys them. It is ultimately a film about what constitutes the essence of man. This demon discovers something in itself that he didn't know before: empathy.
The refusal, the denial and the suppression of all human empathy.
The Zone of Interest can be read as the sheer opposite: the refusal, the denial and the suppression of all human empathy. That human beings are capable of this is a realization to which we have had to become accustomed with ever new horror, with each new genocide. Since then, we have been searching for the psychological, historical, and social factors that make this possible over and over again.
Glazer is only marginally interested in this, if at all. He presents a picture of the greatest possible horror that quietly creeps up on us, which is so effective because it doesn't show the horror. Actor Christian Friedel plays a concerned and loving father and actress Sandra Hüller a dutiful and responsible guardian of the house.
A few times, Father Höss is seen in matter-of-fact office discussions about better methods of murder, and once Mother Höss snaps at at one of her domestics, saying she could make sure that her husband scatters her ashes in the fields. No further horror makes it though the filter.
Cinematic portrayals of Nazis
One gets the impression that Glazer is working off the image that prevailed for half a century in the portrayal of Nazis in Anglo-American film and television — the roaring, heartless brutes. He operates with 100% contrast. Yet there have been cracks in this portrayal for some time, Christoph Waltz's cultured (if still merciless) officer in Inglorious Basterds or Philip Hochmair's Heydrich acting like a modern manager in The Conference.
Above all, however, there was Theodor Kotulla's 1977 film Death is My Trade in 1977, a year before the miniseries "Holocaust", with Meryl Streep, interrupted the sleep of West German oblivion forever. At one point in Kotulla's film, Höss's wife sees through the full extent of the extermination machinery and, terrified, confronts her husband, who invokes his sense of duty.
Would he also kill their children if he received the order to do so, she asks? Of course he would, Höss replies — as soon as he received the order.
Kotulla is not content with a horror cabinet of petrified consciences and numbed humanity like Glazer. He depicts "a German life," striving — largely successfully — to answer the question of how Höss, a World War I soldier, could become Auschwitz-Höß.
But in the end, The Zone of Interest falls considerably short.
Glazer's film, on the other hand, seems like an illustration of the worst monsters from Hannah Arendt's thesis of the "banality of evil". One must probably warn again, especially nowadays, against the rebirth of such monsters. But in the end, The Zone of Interest falls considerably short.
In real life, Rudolf Höss hid after the war on a farm in Schleswig-Holstein and waited for the opportunity to escape to South America. A Nazi hunter tracked down his family and forced Höss's wife to hand over her husband's address by threatening to send their older boy to Russia. Höss was arrested, sentenced to death in Poland, and hanged a few yards from his old villa in 1947.
Brigitte Höss, one of the daughters, married a U.S. engineer and lived in Washington D.C. for a long time; only her husband knew about the family history. Hedwig Höss died in 1989 in her daughter's guest room during a visit.
And Martin Amis died on the day of the film's premiere in Cannes.