Opinion | The Oscar Contender That Won’t Let Us Look Away

Opinion | The Oscar Contender That Won’t Let Us Look Away

Any filmmaker trying to draw meaning from the Holocaust onscreen faces potential pitfalls. If you showcase individual human perseverance, as in Agnieszka Holland’s 1990 film “Europa Europa,” you risk trivialization; if you attempt to dramatize the inside of a concentration camp, as in Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film “Life Is Beautiful,” you risk exploitation; if you’re simply interested in preserving the testimony of survivors, you risk redundancy with what Claude Lanzmann accomplished in the 1985 film “Shoah.”

Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List” is a masterpiece that consciously navigates these risks, but it, too, has faced criticism for sentimentality and for centering the figure of a righteous gentile.

Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” a dark horse candidate for best picture at the Academy Awards on Sunday, avoids all of these traps and finds something new and profoundly unsettling to say about the Holocaust. Mr. Spielberg recently called it “the best Holocaust movie I’ve witnessed since my own.” The film also accomplishes something more relevant to the present, forcing viewers to confront difficult questions about our own proximity to atrocity, and succeeding as a bracing reminder of how art can alert and sensitize us to the historical moment we inhabit.

“Zone” is ostensibly about the genocide of European Jewry, but its focus is not on the Jewish victims, who remain almost entirely offscreen. Rather, Mr. Glazer exposes the perpetrators to the scrutiny of the audience’s gaze. “Zone” depicts the life of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, and his family at their handsome estate just outside the walls of the death camp.

We don’t see prisoners gunned down or stripped naked and marched to the gas chambers. What we do see — and thanks to a chilling and ingenious sound design, hear — are plumes of smoke rising above the incinerators, glimpsed through the window of a bedroom, and the distant rattle of gunfire on the other side of the wall as we tour the pristine garden that Rudolf’s wife, Hedwig, enjoys showing off to guests.

In one of the most disturbing scenes, we watch as a stream of dark ash overtakes the neighboring brook in which Rudolf and his children have gone for a dip. The father is horrified — not at the slaughter implied by this pollution, but at the possibility of his family’s contamination — and a frantic cleansing ensues.

While the film does not ask that we empathize with the Hösses, the conventions of storytelling dictate that we can’t help but identify with them. Some critics have called this approach hollow or even kitschy, an over-aestheticized art house stunt that tells us nothing new about Auschwitz. “The Zone of Interest” has made many of its more sympathetic critics uncomfortable, and that’s by design. “For me, this is not a film about the past,” Mr. Glazer told The Guardian. “It’s trying to be about now, and about us and our similarity to the perpetrators, not our similarity to the victims.”

By keeping the violence of the camp just barely out of frame, Mr. Glazer renders it an omnipresent backdrop to everyday life. In compelling us to spend time with the Hösses, the film demands that we reflect not only on the Holocaust but also on our own degrees of complicity in the horrors that we know are being carried out on the other sides of figurative and literal walls today.

Höss is the overseer of Auschwitz and enters the camp every day, but his wife and children don’t see what’s on the other side of the wall. Yet much of the film’s impact comes in dissecting how they are broadly aware of what goes on and are directly implicated, while still able to carry on their routine lives mostly unperturbed. Watching “The Zone of Interest” as U.S.-made bombs rained down on civilian neighborhoods in Gaza, I couldn’t help but dwell on the banal acceptance of these mass civilian casualties that I’ve witnessed closer to home.

I’m not alone in drawing that connection. One of the film’s producers, James Wilson, in his BAFTA acceptance speech last month, spoke of “the walls we construct in our lives which we choose not to look behind” and of “innocent people being killed in Gaza or Yemen.” While accepting a technical achievement award for the film’s mesmerizing soundtrack at the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards, Mica Levi took the opportunity to call for a cease-fire in Gaza.

Mx. Levi — who, like Mr. Glazer and Mr. Wilson, is Jewish — is one of the few entertainment industry figures this awards season to have taken a public stand on Israel’s military siege against the Palestinians. For Jews like myself, who publicly oppose Israel’s actions in Gaza, one of the hardest realities to confront is the fact that plenty of people in our communities are aware that the Israeli offensive is killing tens of thousands of Palestinians, many of whom are children. But in the wake of the gruesome Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israelis that touched off the war, many people we are close to are not just incurious about Israel’s assault on Gaza but are willing to justify it without apology.

This is the thoroughly modern unease that “Zone of Interest” taps into. The advent of social media means that many of us are confronted with human suffering and injustice as an ambient fact of daily life, and not only in Israel and Gaza, but around the world. By necessity we can develop an instinct to minimize, dismiss or, in some cases, even defend human suffering — which is the very instinct that “Zone of Interest” intends to expose. It turns the audience’s gaze on the perpetrators, but it also implicitly asks us to examine our own roles.

The closest artistic precedent to the approach of “The Zone of Interest” is not a Holocaust film at all, but rather Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary “The Act of Killing.” In examining the U.S.-backed Indonesian mass killings of the mid-1960s, Mr. Oppenheimer asks living perpetrators of the massacres to recount and dramatically re-enact their crimes. The perpetrators initially take up this task with a comic relish that comes across as profoundly inappropriate and discomfiting. “The Act of Killing” ends with one of its subjects retching over what he has spent decades being outwardly proud of. His discomfort doesn’t begin to address the scale of the damage he did, but it’s a visceral expression of regret.

The sequence is deliberately echoed in Mr. Glazer’s film. “Zone” ends with Höss dry-heaving after a night of partying with other Nazi officials as he momentarily seems to contemplate a future — our own present — in which all he did at Auschwitz is reduced to a sterile museum exhibit in a free Poland. No conscious part of Höss is in doubt about the correctness of his project, but on some basic level his body revolts against its own evil.

“The Zone of Interest” offers no moral redemption for the Hösses. Nor does it offer audiences the satisfaction of seeing Höss captured by the Allied powers and executed. There are no Jewish survivors to celebrate onscreen, nothing to distract us from the reality that the majority of Europe’s Jews were successfully exterminated.

Having closely observed a living instrument of genocide for the duration of the film, we are extended no solace and we exit the theater feeling a little unclean, as though we participated ourselves. Perhaps in another context we might have. Perhaps in another context we are.

David Klion is a journalist and cultural critic at work on a book about the legacy of neoconservatism.

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