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The Humanity of Evil

The Humanity of Evil

Eschewing villainy and heroism, a new film about an Auschwitz commandant's home life subverts the Holocaust genre.

Noah Berlatsky

Most Hollywood Holocaust films are supposed to be emotionally difficult because they encourage us to identify with victims. In movies like Schindler’s List (1993) and The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017), our point-of-view character is a heroic gentile who looks at suffering and shows us how to feel it ourselves. The horrors, by empathetic transferal, are visited on the viewer. We feel the Holocaust as if it is inflicted upon us, and we then act, with the hero, to ameliorate the pain. The goal is to get us to recognize evil—or, more honestly, to get us to recognize ourselves as someone who recognizes evil and who acts to fight it. 

If that sounds glib rather than difficult, it’s only because it is—as Jonathan Glazer’s much less forgiving new film, Zone of Interest, makes clear. Based on a Martin Amis novel, the movie focuses on Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his family, who live in a spacious home with a beautiful garden close to the camp. Rudolf (Christian Friedel) is being transferred to another posting, and he and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) struggle with the implications for their children and their idyllic life together.

Glazer keeps the pace slow and is deliberately circumspect about the camp itself. You never see a prisoner or an act of violence. The threadbare, gaunt servants who at first seem like they might be Jews are, it turns out, Polish gentiles from the surrounding village—all the Jews, Hedwig mentions in passing reassurance to a friend, are behind the walls. 

The absence of any specific victims to sympathize with allows Glazer to define Auschwitz, and the Holocaust, not by the presence of heroism or emotion or life, but by the absence of all of those things. Hedwig and her servants rifle with matter-of-fact avarice through discarded Jewish clothing; Hedwig preens in a mirror in a fur coat and applies the lipstick she finds in the pocket with careful relish. She boasts cheerfully about how she has planted vines to obscure the sight of the camp wall, and as her family plays in the pool you can hear the sound of gunshots in the distance. One of the children playing in his room hears a guard order a prisoner drowned. “You won’t do that again,” the child mutters to himself, and goes on with his game. 

There are also moments that recall Glazer’s earlier film Under the Skin (2013) by introducing an air of more supernatural uncanniness. At several moments in the movie (including the very beginning) the screen goes to a single flat color and you hear distorted music or an ambient, ominous hum, courtesy of sound designer Johnnie Burn and composer Mica Levi. Höss also experiences something like a vision of the future, and there are dream-like images of a Polish girl wandering around the camp leaving things or picking them up—a mysterious, ambivalent symbol.

The truth is, though, that these moments where Glazer tips his hand, while powerful, are also in many respects the least uncomfortable of the film. When we hear death, even off screen, or when the film momentarily embraces the surreal, we are invited into the more or less familiar community of moral condemnation. The Höss family does not view what is happening as unusul or as atrocity, but we do. We know more and are better than them. There’s comfort in that.

But that comfort is deliberately fleeting and unconvincing. That’s because, despite the reminders of the violence being perpetrated nearby, it’s disquietingly easy to like and identify with Rudolf and Hedwig. 

Part of the couple’s appeal has to do with the fact that the Höss family just looks like the kind of healthy, happy sitcom brood we’re supposed to adore. The film starts with them lakeside in swimming gear; the blonde little girls are in adorable braids, the adults fuss and tease the kids. The Aryan ideal they embody is also—still—in Hollywood and elsewhere ours. Rudolf and Hedwig look like they should be the protagonists of the film. And so they are. 

Friedel and Hüller are both magnetic, nuanced actors and they give the Hösses not just depth but real appeal. Rudolf is a driven workaholic though it’s quickly apparent that he dotes on his children. There’s even a scene where he declares his love for his horse, a goofy and adorable act worthy of a sitcom dad. Hedwig is brusque with the servants, but she also displays a giddy core of silliness, oinking at her husband across the gap between their twin beds before dissolving in giggles. And who can resist the family’s eager, friendly dog?

The Hösses are in fact so likable, and their home so perfect, that you feel thrown when they reveal the kind of low-key faults that plague less perfect couples. Rudolf is unfaithful. Hedwig sometimes goes beyond treating the servants with contempt into berating them. At one point one of the perfect children locks his younger brother in the greenhouse. At these moments you might find yourself thinking, “They should be better than that!” And then, of course, you remember—not least when Hedwig casually threatens her maid with incineration in the ovens.

The real horror of Zone of Interest isn’t that we now and then see the barbed wire. It’s that it makes us see how easy it is to be complicit. That complicity is in part the impulse to ignore the evil next door when you have a lovely garden of your own. But more deeply, and perhaps more ominously, the complicity is not just self-interest and self-absorption, but our investment in certain kinds of narratives and certain kinds of people.

We think of empathy as a moral guide; by seeing ourselves in others, we will treat others with kindness and charity. But Glazer turns our empathy against us, so that we see ourselves in the Hösses. Rudolf and Hedwig—like that Nazi hero, Oskar Schindler—look like they belong in a movie. They perform endearing domestic drama, they succeed at work and at home. The banality of evil isn’t that the Nazis are boring bureaucrats. It’s that they’re normal and appealing, not least because, the movie chillingly suggests, our films (and much more) share many of their ideas about what is normal and appealing. Rather than assuring viewers that we will be on the right side, Zone of Interest tells us that when evil comes, we might well cheer it on.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago. He writes about movies and other matters at Everything Is Horrible.

Image: Segment of the Zone of Interest movie poster. (IMDB)

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