A Profound Sense of Place

Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone Of Interest

A24

At 6 am, you can catch a tour bus from the center of Kraków, travel two hours east to Oświęcim, and arrive at the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz for an 8:30 AM tour. On the way, you fall asleep to a group of American teenagers with too much energy for the solemn day. A woman wearing a bright blue vest takes your ticket in front of the gate that reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The teenagers take photos of each other under the sign. You wonder if you should get a photo as well. Auschwitz is a red-brick town with a quaintness to it, like a collection of college dormitories at a New England liberal arts college. You allow this comparison to linger until you see the border of barbed wire. Prisoners with musical talent were forced to assemble and play a waltz so that officers could count as others went to and from meals, reads a sign in front of the dining hall. The museum information that accompanies these sites helps guide your experience of gravity. Fascination finally grips you as you wait in line to enter the gas chamber. In front of you, a family of Scandanavians receives the information from disposable headsets: in the years 1940-1945, the Nazis deported at least 1,300,000 people to Auschwitz, 1,100,000 of whom died directly in the structure before you. The dim concrete room shines with a patina of cleanliness. No more than twenty claustrophobic feet stretch in every direction. Looking up at the small outlet in the ceiling showing the bright and cold morning outside, you notice strange markings on the wall. Fingernail markings, thousands of them, clamber upwards to the escape. The past comes rushing at you like a punch to the stomach. You feel the uncanniness of time—the way the space around you suddenly calls into question the notion of past, present, and future. You reach up to trace your fingertips over the scratches. Whatever truth there is can be found in this proximity. 

The gas chamber gives presence to history. Jonathan Glazer’s latest film The Zone of Interest wants to bring the past into physical existence in the same way. In one of the film’s final scenes, SS officer Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) stumbles down the steps of the Nazi headquarters in Oranienburg, retching at every stoop. Earlier that day, he had a medical inspection for his nauseating dread, but all bodily functions were normal. The cause is likely psychological: he’s just been assigned to a new operation back at Auschwitz, where more than 3 million Hungarian Jews are to be transported and subsequently gassed. As Rudolf reaches the second to last floor of his descent, he looks towards the camera, into the dark hallway. He stares at us and we see what he sees: a vision of the future. Auschwitz has been transformed into a museum where millions of spectacles entangle like a Louise Bourgeois sculpture; a matted mound of hair sits, almost breathing, like a hibernating animal. The leftovers of those murdered at the site are kept behind plexiglass wiped clean by Auschwitz employees. A modern vacuum whirs loudly onscreen. The screen has become a portal, a sort of time machine. 

The Zone of Interest is based on the 2014 Martin Amis novel of the same name. Set in Auschwitz, Amis’s novel is a chorus of drama that hinges on the infatuation of an SS officer with the camp commandant’s wife. Honing in on the operatic crescendo of this love triangle instead of a broad historical analysis of its conditions, Amis arrives at an intimate and nuanced representation of the moral complexities and horrors of the Holocaust. Plot-wise, the film adaptation departs significantly from the novel and narrativizes, instead, real events from the life of Rudolf Höss, the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz. What Glazer adapts, however, is Amis’s fascination with the mechanics of romance on the edge of atrocity. Glazer allegorizes Amis’s story of intimacy as a location: the idyllic Höss family residence sits directly on the perimeter of a concentration camp, which churns in the background with the same drama as Mordor. In the day, the family banally moves about their homestead—the mother Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) tends to the garden; the children spread about their rooms, counting golden teeth and playing shadow animals on the wall; Rudolf changes from a posh linen suit into his SS uniform. In the night, the ovens of Auschwitz churn out volcanic luminescence, and a horrifying drone of machinery and distant cries fill the family’s dreams. Glazer’s juxtaposing images are very sci-fi and confer meaning onto this domestic proximity which would otherwise read as two neighboring estates. 

Honing in on “the zone” of Amis’s title as a location, Glazer chooses to explore how place is a container of memories, emotions, and time. In his medium, he also shows us how film can reproduce this sense for an audience. Reaching back to German filmmaking pioneer Leni Riefenstahl, Glazer strives to use the illuminated box in a dark theater as a zone with immense power and influence. Riefenstahl’s infamous Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935) was hugely successful in portraying Hitler and the Nazi Party in such a clever (and deceitful) manner that it convinced German citizens they were destined for eternal glory. Shown every year until the end of the war, the film celebrated the revival of Germany as a great power after its loss in WWI by manipulating images taken from a 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, in which 700,000 people were in attendance. Riefenstahl warps reality, transforming footage from this singular event into a timeless communal experience, a new space where the German people’s lives could unfold. Even today, watching the film, you inhabit a new world. Reifenstahl packages fascism as another dimension—the alternate reality Hitler believed he could create out of thin air. Her propaganda cinema seems to be a profound influence on Glazer’s Holocaust film. But perhaps it is appropriate, and not just ironic, that such a tool can now be used to commemorate this history. 

Glazer’s rendering of the Holocaust departs from other cinematic forms of “Holokitsch,” such as Jojo Rabbit (2019) and Inglourious Basterds (2009). Indeed, these films with their artifice and tawdry humor create distance from the reality of WWII. Glazer concerns himself with working against separation to create a sense of nearness. He produces this sense two ways. The first is through the film’s loud and visceral auditory textures, which deliver the embodied horror of the setting. He works with the notion of “out of sight, out of mind,” to portray the horrific goings-on behind the walls of the concentration camp, which the characters never see behind despite living on the other side. We are taken back to Rudolf’s horrified gaze after the footage of current day Auschwitz, and then the film cuts to black. A deafening cacophony of industry plays upon a blank screen before the credits roll. A long empty screen also initiates us into the film, except a dissonant drone transitions into the sounds of nature: birds chirp, a body rustles through tall grass. A mother sits with her children abreast of a river; downslope, the boys splash one another jubilantly. It is the dead of summer and the loud hum of cicadas suggests this might be the Rheinlander’s dream. 

Through visuals, Glazer questions the ethics of nearness. The camera holds every object in the same focus; there is no background or foreground, no close-ups or camera movement. We are introduced to the inside of the Höss residence from the corner of a cramped kitchen, where Hedwig and her friends sit enjoying an afternoon coffee. These women remain central as one of the domestic servants enters the kitchen from one end of the frame and exits through the other. With multiple still cameras working simultaneously, similar to the security cameras in reality shows like Big Brother, the camera changes to view the servant from the corner of the dining room as she nervously pours a shot glass of Schnapps. Hedwig and her friends are still seen casually chatting in the shot, now in striking contrast to the servant’s perilous task—she must carry the shot glass atop a silver platter to the front porch for Rudolf. The implication is if she spills even a drop onto the platter, she will be killed. In contrast to this sudden high stakes scenario, the flat, impersonal images produce visually the emotional detachment the characters have to the proximal horror. As empathetic creatures, we enter the film understanding that closeness and emotional connection are inherently intertwined. Yet, showing how these characters can be so close yet utterly unemotional, Glazer precisely and complexly captures a characterization of Nazis not often seen in media. 

One character in particular is memorably portrayed. Hedwig is nicknamed the “Queen of Auschwitz,” and relishes in the silk and fur brought to her house—object traces of those murdered. In one of the film’s most unsettling scenes—an obvious homage to the fascist women of Pasolini’s Salò —she finds lipstick in the lavish fur coat she pinches at the waist, twirling in the mirror like a girl trying on her mother’s dresses. Hedwig proceeds to smell the lipstick and try it on, only to remove it with alcohol after seeing its bright pink color intimately smeared on her lips. But is it because of shame that she removes the lipstick, or is it not her color? Hedwig’s disturbing internality shows us the potential route Glazer could have taken had he chosen to explore character and narrative. However, the Höss matriarch is somewhat shunned by Glazer. He uses her as a mere atmospheric device, one similar to the more experimental choices he makes throughout the film. 

The most provocative of these choices is shot in infrared: a story extraneous to the film’s plot, told as a fairytale imagined by the Höss’s youngest daughter plagued with insomnia. The first time Rudolf finds his daughter awake past midnight, the camera cuts to a dreamlike realm in night vision where a local Polish girl (and one of the Höss’s domestic servants) collects fallen apples and plants them in the mounds of dirt where prisoners work during the day. The second time he finds his daughter, the night vision fairytale continues—the girl places apples in wheelbarrows and behind shovels, finding a precious object that one of the prisoners must have left her as thanks. Object exchange represents the way characters exist in time. Hedwig’s greedy gains represent her attachment to the present and future, how she has “landed on her feet” after a seemingly rough past undisclosed to the audience. Based on Polish resistance worker Aleksandra Bystroń-Kołodziejczyk, the girl’s out-of-place generosity suggests she is a character from the timeless realm of myth. 

These infrared moments that abruptly step outside of the film bring to mind the video Under Under, a part of British artist Mark Leckey’s show O’ Magic Power of Bleakness from 2021. In the video, a gang of kids get high on lighter fluid beneath an underpass and are pestered by a supernatural, pixie-like force. The camera shifts between infrared and jittery, iPhone-like close-ups. Whether toxified or enchanted, we are meant to feel as though we’ve passed into a mythical realm hidden under the bridge. The Polish girl’s darkly fantastical dimension, paired with the enervating score, seems to take place in a similar reality as Leckey’s—the space children imagine to escape severe circumstances. In other rooms of the gallery were both digital 3D renderings and physical recreations of the freeway underpass—Leckey’s childhood hangout under the M53 Motorway running through his deindustrialized hometown across the River Mersey from Liverpool. Leckey uses this location from his memories to consider the mechanics of imagination, evoking social, narrative, and paranormal dimensions to create a complex spatial history outside of his mind. Dan Fox in Frieze writes of the show: “Leckey’s work expresses a profound sense of place and the experiences that bodies mop up and can’t shake off, no matter how far they move away, physically, culturally or temporally.”

Leckey’s show is performed with the same bewilderment at humanity’s passage from past to future induced by the Museum Auschwitz. Constructing a replica of the underpass is a way for him to both analyze and restore what was lost to his childhood, making it accessible to all who view his art. This emphasizes a fundamental principle of place-ness—that the emotions and memories we associate with our personal past are perhaps more inherently tied to place—thereby suggesting that these intimacies can be a communal experience. Leckey’s underpass is a magical entrance to an unseen world, a wrinkle in the fabric of reality, just as Auschwitz transports us to profound desperation, terror, and death—which we can feel deeply by treading through the space. It isn’t the past we enter in the gas chambers, it’s more like stepping into someone else’s memories. The space allows us to bear witness to an ugly chimera of history, subjectivity, and myth. This is how one might best describe The Zone of Interest: an ugly chimera of image, sound, and emotion that uses the logic of fairytales to transform the past into something eternal. 

It feels necessary to place visual art alongside The Zone of Interest, because Glazer uses the screen as a textured, aesthetic surface. Thinking about the film in this way puts it in a tradition of Holocaust art that uses material to (re)produce historical space. The Zone of Interest thus strongly resonates with work like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and the monumental career of German artist Anselm Kiefer, whose practice reckons with Germany’s amnesia in the decades following the Holocaust. Through painting and sculpture, Kiefer’s decades’ long project attempts to excavate and immortalize the vastness of death that had been buried in cultural memory. Through this, he also recreates this memory for people of other cultures. Karl Ove Knausgaard emphasizes the place-ness of Kiefer’s work in his essay “Tándaradéi!” from his collection In The Land of the Cyclops: 

The individual has no place…[his paintings] are turned toward the space of human activity, the space in which we appear and vanish, and while that space is constant, our activity in it is fleeting and transitory. The different speeds of time in the human and material realm is a central premise of many of Kiefer’s paintings. 

In Kiefer’s show Walhalla, from 2016, Knausgaard discovers a similar timeless space as Leckey’s mythological realm. Encounters with art that grapples with, as Knausgaard puts it, “the inviolability of life; the inescapable nothingness of death” require the same psychological and emotional tools children use to access fairytales. Like children, who are so imbricated in their surroundings because they have not yet developed a strong sense of self, our individuality subsides so that a greater spatio-temporal reality—which might be the very essence of the historical—can emerge. 

As we approach the centennial anniversary of WWII in the upcoming decade, there will likely be more media similar to Glazer’s that uses new technologies to activate our imaginations and reproduce the feeling of the zone. One of these exact portraits is Wim Wenders’s recent 3D documentary on Kiefer, Anselm (2023). More than imagination, these new media of the Holocaust are concerned with capturing attention, for only attention can bring a contemporary audience into a relationship with this content. Wenders relies on the formal gimmick of 3D to make Kiefer’s austere practice feel exciting and relevant. Similarly, Glazer’s film is full of experimental tricks that the viewer might find ‘striking’ or ‘innovative.’ 

The Zone of Interest is the type of film that elicits the “I don’t get it” response from people, especially of younger generations. Many reviews on Letterboxd claim that they would have liked it more if they knew more about it. “It” being the Holocaust, presumably. But what prior knowledge could help one watch Glazer’s film? The sensation of ‘not knowing enough’ seems to be a result of the proximity Glazer has successfully produced. It is a response that suggests they feel implicated, ashamed even, for their ignorance. But ignorance here is not intellectual or emotional, it is temporal. A similar benightedness plagued the German people after WWI. Riefenstahl’s propaganda attempted to cure the German people’s inability to fathom a collective future. Glazer’s film works comparably, but for a generation for which attention and entertainment is a precondition for connection. By activating the power of place instead of portraying numbers and influence, this film is less manipulative than Riefenstahl’s. Whatever the fine line between guidance and manipulation is, it’s needed for us to navigate the metaphysical emptiness that events like the Holocaust opened up in human history.