The Zone of Interest film Jonathan Glazer Palestine Gaza Israel

What we don’t talk about when we talk about The Zone of Interest

“I do not anticipate every review to refer to this film as both a historical investigation and a contemporary lesson, but the complete omission on the part of people paid to write about these things is clear: there is a Gaza-shaped void in the mainstream critical discourse.”

The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer’s most recent film, is loosely based on the Martin Amis novel of the same name and, as The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins points out, on the autobiography of its central character Rudolf Höss (The Commandant of Auschwitz). It deserves the praise it’s been accumulating. This is a Holocaust film focusing entirely on the quotidian lives of a Nazi commandant and his family living directly over the wall encircling Auschwitz, where the prisoners exist only as a terrifying soundscape and are never seen. 

It’s a formally interesting film many years in the making, but what I would like to talk about is why mainstream critics have gone to such lengths to describe the film’s contemporary relevance while simultaneously refusing to utter the name of the place in which a different genocide is currently unfolding: Gaza.

As a Jewish writer, I am throwing my thoughts into that absence, not to say that this is the only relevant discussion that can happen around this film, but to express my outrage that even the most cogent anti-Zionist dialogue is still being dismissed as antisemitic, so much so that it muzzles writers before they can even begin. Films are one window into the world, not an abstraction; they are always implicitly political, always of their time. I’m fascinated by Glazer’s use of hidden cameras, by his research, all of it, but I also expect critics to try and decipher and interrogate this film’s relevance to society.

The Zone of Interest Sandra Huller
Sandra Hüller in The Zone of Interest

In The Guardian, Higgins writes that the film is a call “to regain the capacity to detect when states drift towards immorality, and social institutions become violent and corrupted.” The Zone of Interest is absolutely that, though she never names any institutions or states that are in fact violent and corrupt. Robert Daniels at comes closer: “The fact that The Zone of Interest arrives now, as world powers manipulate the narrative to sanitize their crimes, makes Glazer’s images all the more chilling.” Still, he avoids speaking about the most pertinent and horrifying contemporary parallel. 

Towards the end of his BAFTA acceptance speech for a Film Not In The English Language (their version of Best International Film), Glazer said, “We should care about innocent people being killed in Gaza or Yemen in the same way we think about innocent people being killed in Mariupol or in Israel.” Then, seemingly worried that the clapping after his mention of Gaza and Yemen might have obscured his point, he continued, “I don’t know if you heard what I said. The same as innocent people killed in Mariupol or Israel or anywhere else in the world.” As if there could be a shred of controversy in a successful Jewish filmmaker uttering the word “ceasefire” on a public stage, or better yet, decrying genocide: calling the terrible act by its name. 

In Glazer’s film, The Zone of Interest is the most sanitized term possible for Auschwitz and its surroundings, telling us something very obvious about our unfailing ability to use language to obfuscate. Meanwhile, commentators continue to do extreme verbal (and thus also existential) acrobatics to avoid using the term genocide when discussing Israel’s assault on Gaza, and media outlets once known for an attempt at impartiality, in particular The New York Times, display a distinct anti-Palestinian bias in the editorial line they have chosen. Please see Jacobin’s reporting on this.

Sandra Hüller The Zone of Interest

The backlash for drawing comparisons between the Holocaust and events in Gaza is extreme, but I stand by Jewish writer Masha Gessen’s moral argument “to compare the Holocaust and the atrocities committed during the Second World War to the present. If we take the promise of ‘never again’ seriously, we once again have to constantly be asking ourselves, are we laying the foundations for the mass murder of millions of people? Are we employing or is part of the world employing the same kinds of tactics that were employed by the Nazis? I think there’s every reason to say that that is exactly what’s happening.”

She has also carefully enumerated the similarities between the ghettoization of Jews in Europe and the isolation of Gaza, as well as Israel’s use of “starvation as a weapon of war, which not only is a war crime, but is a war crime that was committed by the Nazis.” She does not make these comparisons lightly, and also notes a key difference: Israelis have been subject to actual acts of violence, whereas Nazi justification of Jewish ghettos by claiming Jews carried diseases “had no basis in reality.” To draw this devastating historical comparison is never to suggest a uniformity of circumstance.

Talking about a vague international upwelling of extremist thought instead of calling attention to Gaza is itself a sanitizing act, one driven by the continual and dangerous accusations of antisemitism that not even Jewish writers and thinkers are immune to. This is a climate of intellectual fear that can only engender further polarization and hatred, including antisemitism. It is true that other fascist states are enacting horrifying violence, not just the state of Israel, but imagine if western intellectuals and artists were accused of perpetuating hate-speech when they denounce, for example, Putin’s regime.

The devastating conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism is premised in part on misinformation about the Jewish diaspora’s purported loyalty to Israel. Consider a poll that the progressive Jewish publication Forward discussed back in 2021 that found “25% [of Jewish Americans] agreed that Israel was an apartheid state” and that “22% agreed that Israel was committing genocide.” This is hardly the homogenous state of Zionist approval we are led to believe, but which nevertheless continues to drive western tax dollars towards Israel’s military.  

Christian Freidel in The Zone of Interest
Christian Freidel in The Zone of Interest

I wish Glazer were more outspoken about his own work’s relevance, but at the same time, any film exists outside of a filmmaker’s dialogue about it. The Zone of Interest acts as a mirror in which we see ourselves in Rudolf and Hedwig Höss: one involved in the day-to-day operations of extermination, and the other running a household financed by it. That’s the whole terrifying point of the film: that the screams and ash just over the edge of the beautiful garden path are not ours but a horrific background hum we come not to notice because we accept it as somehow necessary.

Glazer spends a lot of time on the Höss family’s financial dependence on the Holocaust: the lush picnics, the counting of little stacks of cash, the acquisition of new clothes (stolen from families brought to Auschwitz) — it’s a horrifyingly tidy economy wherein mass murder directly finances their middle-class prosperity.

It’s not, as the more rabid online commentators are keen to point out, that one can’t even mention the Holocaust without bringing up Palestine in the same breath, but Glazer’s film focuses keenly on the ways in which we (anyone) bear resemblance to the perpetrators of great wrongs, not only to victims. As he has said, “This is not about the past, it’s about now.” I do not anticipate every review to refer to this film as both a historical investigation and a contemporary lesson, but the complete omission on the part of people paid to write about these things is clear: there is a Gaza-shaped void in the mainstream critical discourse. 

I would argue that a press that normalizes the cowardice of this omission is in fact part of the cultural climate that stokes further polarization and hate. Look at the reaction to No Other Land, which won the Documentary Film Award and the Panorama Audience Award at the 2024 Berlinale. Written and directed by a Palestinian-Israeli collective, the film focuses on Israeli settler violence, as well as on the friendship between co-directors Yuval Abraham and Basel Adra, an Israeli journalist and a Palestinian activist, respectively. German politicians and Israeli media outlets accused the filmmakers of antisemitism, and Abraham has since received death threats, while noting that Adra returns home to far greater danger of violence. The disturbing ease with which the term “antisemitism” is used, as Abraham noted on his Instagram, “empties the word of meaning and thus endangers Jews all over the world.” 

A24, the distributor of The Zone of Interest, shared a tweet from Steven Spielberg about how the film “is doing a lot of good work in raising awareness, especially about the banality of evil” — Spielberg was quoting from Hannah Arendt’s famous turn of phrase. The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan writes about how Rudolf and Hedwig Höss “are the embodiment of the Jewish writer Primo Levi’s insistence that it is ordinary people, rather than monsters, who are capable of committing atrocity. ‘Monsters exist,’ wrote Levi, a Holocaust survivor, ‘but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.'”

If Arendt and Levi, and in his way, Glazer, all point us towards this familiar dark insight, it’s worth noting another Arendt quote: “under conditions of terror, most people will comply but some people will not.” In The Zone of Interest, that glimmer of resistance is a woman leaving out apples at night for the starving workers at the camp to discover. There is never a total compliance with power, however cruel, and it is important to remember that.

At the Oscars on Sunday, The Zone of Interest was nominated in five categories, winning Best International Feature Film and Best Sound. Glazer read from a prepared speech: “Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst. […] Right now we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation that has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza.” He dedicated the award to Alexandria, the real person on whom the woman hiding apples is based. 

Glazer took his words a step further than he did in his BAFTA speech by acknowledging both the occupation and those who deform the memory of the Holocaust to fit their own ends. This is important. As journalist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin commented on Instagram, Glazer’s words were “Coded, with conviction.” 

Still, this was a far cry from the unflappable Palestinian solidarity speech from Vanessa Redgrave in 1978, and also from the clear language about Russia from Ukrainian director Mstyslav Chernov, who won the Best Documentary Feature award this year for 20 Days at Mariupol. Glazer still said more about Gaza, however, than anyone else at the awards ceremony and was palpably shaking saying what he did, pointing to the climate of intimidation that so clearly envelopes him and anyone else who speaks about Palestine. It speaks volumes that Glazer’s rather soft condemnation was not only singular but received so much pushback from right-wing Jewish commentators online, who viciously condemned him as a self-hating Jew.

So often artists are the worst assessors of their own work; the material is just too close at hand. However, just because Glazer hasn’t drawn a more exacting parallel between his film and events in Palestine doesn’t mean the international press has to continually avoid commenting on what is not only obvious but also ethically essential. I was glad to see those red pins on select jackets, but I’m old-fashioned — I’ll take real words any day. ■

The Zone of Interest is available on VOD and is still screening in select Montreal theatres.

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