“The Zone of Interest”


About “The Zone of Interest,” long-time movie critic Manohla Dargis at the New York Times wrote, “Jonathan Glazer has made a hollow, self-aggrandizing art-film exercise set in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.”

I couldn’t disagree more. This film, loosely based on the plot of a novel by British writer Martin Amis, packed an emotional punch whose pain lingers in me days later. I’m more convinced than ever that in the eternal battle between light and darkness, good and evil, there will be no winners, only endless attrition on both sides. This film shows us what a powerful foe the evil side of human nature can be.

Here’s the summary of the movie on Rotten Tomatoes: The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his wife Hedwig, strive to build a dream life for their family in a house and garden next to the camp.

Dream life and Auschwitz—I’ve got major cognitive dissonance just from that.

The film unhurriedly details the daily life of the Höss family. Family swims in the river, kids playing, Heddy tending to her magnificent garden (with the help of Jewish slaves), Rudolf heading off to work at the camp. But not once does the camera go over the wall or through the gates into the camp.

There’s a scene of Heddy in front of her bedroom mirror modeling a mink coat confiscated from a Jewish prisoner. Inside the pocket is a lipstick. She tries it on, then realizes what she’s done and urgently and violently wipes it off—the lipstick had been on a Jewish woman’s lips. The coat she keeps. Rudolf has his own scene of Jewish contamination: after having sex with a Jewish prisoner (implied, off camera), we see him vigorously washing his genitals.

Neither Rudolf nor Heddy sees Jews as humans. These two are long-time Nazis, completely indoctrinated, servants of the Third Reich, and slaves to Hitler. Neither of them seems to have the slightest qualms or any cognitive dissonance of their own.

And so the major story conflict has nothing to do with the Höss family living on the other side of a wall from the daily torturing, gassing, and burning of their fellow humans; hearing day and night muted screams and the machinery of death; smelling the sour smoke. Instead, the plot has to do with Rudolf performing so well at his exterminator job that he’s being transferred to Berlin in order to oversee all camp inspections. Heddy insists on staying back with the children—this is her dream home, her beautiful life. Eventually, Rudolf returns because his successor isn’t getting the job done efficiently and Auschwitz needs to ramp up operations to handle an expected influx of Hungarians (it’s astonishing to write this).

Although not part of the movie, after the war, Rudolf Höss was tried and executed, but Heddy went free. She remarried and moved to the United States. She forever denied knowing what went on in the camp, although at one point after her Jewish prisoner housemaid makes a mistake, Heddy says: “I could have my husband spread your ashes across the fields of Babice.”

I remain haunted, stricken, unsettled. But I’m going to recommend you see this important movie.

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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