Thursday, February 15, 2024

The Zone of Interest: Movie Review


The Zone of Interest 2023
A Masterpiece from a TV Commercial Director


Friend, please do something for me. Put this article aside and find the nearest theater showing The Zone of Interest. Walk into the theater knowing as little as possible about it. Then return to this article so we can exchange notes. I need to talk about this movie with others.


The Zone of Interest is going to generate a great deal of talk. There will be debates and podcasts. There will be university courses and peer-reviewed scholarly articles. There will be a backlash industry pooh-poohing every accolade the film receives. If you wait too long, your chance to have your own experience of the film may slip out of your hands. You may feel, "The Zone of Interest is its own industry. Seeing it would be too much like homework. I'd prefer the latest superhero movie."


You may be thinking, "Another Holocaust film. They're just are fishing for an Academy Award! Why can't we have movies about other atrocities? And I don't like watching people being tortured."


First, there is no torture, and almost no violence, in this movie. I cry at movies and I didn't cry while watching Zone. Days later, while merely thinking about it, I cried. I had nightmares. Even in my nightmares, there was no blood. There were merely well-groomed, clean people behaving in accord with their value system, their character, and their mental defenses. And we need Holocaust movies because the Holocaust was a big deal. And we can have movies about other atrocities, too, like Twelve Years a Slave and Killers of the Flower Moon.


Zone is universal and timeless, like W. H. Auden's poem "Shield of Achilles," which uses Jesus' crucifixion and Achilles' shield to discuss twentieth-century atrocity. Both Auden's poem and Zone say as much about slavery or the Cambodian Killing Fields or the Gulag as films directly addressing those topics.


I recommend Zone to every thinking adult. I say "thinking" because a subset of viewers are not getting this movie. There are some negative fan reviews online. These say that the film is "boring." "Nothing happens," they complain. "There is no plot." Bless their hearts.


Thinking adults are capable of observing. "To observe" implies an increase in cognitive activity from "to watch." If you know how to observe, you will get Zone.


Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, winner of four Academy Awards, said, that Zone is "probably the most important film of this century, both from the standpoint of his cinematic approach and the complexity of its theme." And if you are thinking, "Oh, this movie sounds too artsy-fartsy. I like more direct fare," don't let that stop you. Glazer got his start in that most democratic of forms, the TV commercial, where he depicted drinking a Guiness beer as tantamount to being a white stallion emerging from ocean surf. Glazer knows how to create images that penetrate to your lizard brain. He wields that magic here, not to sell beer, but to bring you closer to yourself, your own lowest fears and highest prayers.


In the article, below, I will summarize the plot, and then discuss the filmmaker, his approach, and the history he addresses. 


The Zone of Interest A Summary


Note: this summary will provide some background information that is not provided in the film itself. For example, I indicate the name and identity of a girl who distributes fruit at night. That information is not in the film.  


Zone opens with eerie, powerful sounds, that sounded to this listener like stylized trains, breathing, and distorted, distant choruses of keening humans. The film's title, in a minimalist, white, sans-serif font on a black background appears, and then fades so slowly I wasn't sure if it were fading or not. The screen is black for minutes. The sound remains. The movie is teaching us how to understand it. The movie is cluing us in that we must listen, and not just see. We unconsciously obey.


Birds sing. A small party picnics on the shores of a sparkling body of water. The image is crisp and bright; we almost squint from the sun. We can make out individual blades of grass on one side of the water; and individual trees on the opposite shore. We would love to plunge into this scene. It offers pure pleasure: family, sun, nature, peace. The group rises. Beautiful girls carry baskets through lush undergrowth to gather berries.


They drive home through the night. Kids in the car say things that kids say in cars. They arrive at a large house. We hear dogs barking. We associate the bark of a dog with domesticity, with loyal and slobbering Fido protecting his humans from a passing racoon. But no. There is something sinister and threatening in these barks. There is the muffled sound of screams. How far away are those screams? It's hard to calibrate. There is a subdued industrial roar. The husband and wife retire in their separate beds.


The next day, the paterfamilias is blindfolded. His children guide him by hand. They lead him to a canoe. It is their birthday present. The paint is still wet and were he to sit in it, he'd stain his lovely uniform. He asks about the canoe's provenance. I have my sources, the wife assures him; it is handmade. We can guess at the sources; we can guess at the hands; we can guess at the problem of staining. Dad is wearing a Nazi uniform. Beyond this happy, domestic scene, beyond a wall, rise ominous towers, and barbed wire. Dad is Rudolf Hoess, mom is his wife Hedwig. Rudolf departs on horseback for his workday. The kids say their "Seig heils" and head to school. Hedwig, holding her baby, strolls around her extensive garden, and murmurs the names of flowers to the child. A hyperactive black Weimaraner accompanies the family. A servant hangs pristine white sheets on a clothesline.


Rudolf Hoess was the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz. He and his family did live in a villa that shared a wall with the concentration camp where an estimated 1.1 million human beings were murdered. The Hoess villa was quite close to the gas chambers and the crematoria, as maps here show. Filmmaker Jonathan Glazer's meticulous depiction of the Hoess' time in Auschwitz is supported by extensive research. One can find archival photos of Hoess and his children canoeing in a craft very like that in the film, for example. In the film, Hoess identifies a bird; in real life, Auschwitz had a designed ornithologist, Waffen-SS member Günther Niethammer.


A zombie-like workman in shabby clothes pushes a wheelbarrow full of packages toward the Hoess villa. In a manner that appears as if this transaction is routine, the man hands paper-wrapped packages of foodstuffs to a cook. Finally, he hands over a large burlap bag. Hedwig calls a group of female servants into the dining room and lays out silk lingerie. "Take just one each." The women, with downcast eyes and expression-less faces, pick over the lingerie.


Upstairs in her bedroom, before a mirror, Hedwig poses with the contents of the burlap bag – a lush mink coat. Hedwig fingers the coat's hem. She reaches into the coat's pockets and finds a lipstick. She sits at a vanity. Will Hedwig actually touch the lipstick of a murdered Jew to her pure Aryan lips, we wonder? Hedwig arrives, step-by-step, at that violation. That violation of Nazi purity laws. That violation of hygiene. That violation of simple human decency. Hedwig sniffs the lipstick. She samples the color of the lipstick on her hand. She touches the lipstick with her fingertips and transports color to her lips. Finally, she rubs the used lipstick to her lips.


She hands the coat to her servant Aniela Bednarska and demands that it be cleaned. Be careful of the lining, Hedwig warns. Doomed Jews sometimes hid valuables in the hems of coats; that is probably why Hedwig was manipulating the hem and detached the coat's lining.


Hedwig lunches with Nazi wives. They gossip about "shopping" at "Canada." The film does not pause to explain what "Canada" is. Canada was Auschwitz slang for a warehouse of goods stolen from prisoners. One Nazi wife mentions that someone found a diamond in a toothpaste tube. "They are very clever." "I must ask for more toothpaste." Another joke: a fat Nazi fell in love with a dress but it was too small for her and the zipper broke. "I will lose weight for this dress." Laughter.


A woman mentions that "Helga Palitsch's husband only adopted that little Polish boy to keep her at home. That's what she told me. And he bashes her around as well." This comment is never explained. It reminded this viewer of an episode in Fania Fenelon's memoir, Playing for Time. A transport of Polish mothers and children, destined for immediate gassing, arrived. A Polish toddler wandered up to SS-Helferin Maria Mandl and outstretched his arms. Mandl lifted up the boy and was attracted to his beauty. She dressed him sailor suits from Canada, played mother-and-child games with him for days, danced with him, and eventually personally delivered him into the same gas chamber that had previously killed his Polish mother.


Outside, Rudolf arrives for a meeting with two salesmen. A male servant rushes to take Rudolf's boots to an outdoor faucet where the water runs red with blood. The salesmen wonder if they must also remove their shoes. No, they are told. Inside Aniela prepares a glass of schnapps on a silver tray. Her movements are very precise and her posture is cringing. It's clear that she fears if she spills one drop she will be killed.


The recently arrived salesmen are Fritz Sander and Kurt Prufer. They represent J. A. Topf and Sons, a company founded in 1878 that was the largest supplier of crematoria for concentration camps. They explain to Rudolf a new crematorium design. With this new design, even more humans can be incinerated in even less time.


In his Nuremberg testimony, Prufer would later state, matter of factly, "I have known since spring 1943 that innocent human beings were being liquidated in Auschwitz gas chambers and that their corpses were subsequently incinerated in the crematoriums." Sander would testify that "destruction of human beings" was his "duty" to Germany.


The Hoess sons, Klaus and Hans, come home from school and play with toy soldiers. Rudolf and Klaus ride on horseback. The 24-7 drone of mass death is the soundtrack to their leisurely ride. Rudolf asks his son, "Do you hear that?" We, the audience, distinctly hear thousands of people being murdered. Rudolf says he hears a bittern, a marshland bird with an unusual call.


In the evening, Rudolf enjoys his birthday cake and candles with his family. Annegret, the baby, is crying loudly. Rudolf makes a wish and blows out the candles.


Outside, Rudolf is seen through the irons bars of the gate around the garden. He smokes a cigar that glows red in the night. He is looking toward the concentration camp. Then he walks around his yard. There is a shower fixture over his swimming pool. It appears to be leaking. He tinkers with the pull chain. He enters his house and marches about, methodically turning off all the lights, and locking doors.


We in the audience are reeling. Rudolf's glowing cigar parallels the crematoria. His pool's malfunctioning showerhead reminds us of gas chambers. Is Rudolf blindfolded when he gets his present, is Rudolf locking his doors and turning out lights a metaphor?


Upstairs, the oldest Hoess son, Klaus, is in his top bunk bed examining, with his flashlight, gold teeth. His little brother, Hans, emerges from the lower bunk and asks to see. Klaus displays his toys.


The following scenes are shot with an infrared camera. It is night. Aleksandra Bystron-Kolodziejczyk, a Polish girl on a bicycle, is carrying a sack. She approaches an area where camp inmates have left work tools. She leaves apples. The infrared camera renders the night scene black and white. The face of the girl glows white against the dark background of the camp and of arriving trains. Black and white may be a metaphor for the morality here. Aleksandra literally glows white against darkness.


Rudolf and Hedwig face each other as they lie in their beds. Hedwig asks Rudolf to taker her back to an Italian spa they had once visited. "All that pampering," she says, wistfully. Rudolf is distracted. He promises but immediately forgets what he has promised. Hedwig requests chocolate from Canada. Rudolf mocks Hedwig's laughter as pig-like. She oinks; he oinks.


We hear the sounds of arriving, doomed victims. All we see is Rudolf on horseback and smoke whirling around him. The screen fades to white.


Rudolf is at a desk counting out piles of several different international currencies. We hear a letter of recommendation written for Rudolf. Apparently his superiors plan to transfer him. He does not want to be transferred; he wants to stay in Auschwitz. A friend is recommending him via this letter read in voice-over.


Rudolf and the children canoe. Rudolf teaches his kids about stork migration. The kids splash in the river. As Rudolf fishes, a gray plume approaches behind him. He registers surprise, and reaches down into the river. He pulls up part of a human skull. The plume reaches him; it is dumped ash from the crematoria. Panicked, Rudolf rushes to gather up his children.


In the villa, servants are scrubbing the children. Rudolf flushes ash out of his nose. Aniela must next scrub the tub in which the children have bathed. She pauses before doing so; the audience imagines her disgust.


Linna, Hedwig's mother, arrives. She mentions Siemens, a large company that runs a slave labor factory in Auschwitz. There were many such companies that collaborated with Nazism; you can see a partial list here. Rudolf is dictating a note to his officers to treat lilac bushes with care. When picking flowers, Rudolf instructs, pick them carefully so that the bush is not damaged.


Hedwig gives Linna a tour of her garden. Linna wonders if Esther Silberman, for whom she used to clean house, is on the other side of the wall abutting the garden. Linna mentions that she was outbid for Esther's curtains. Esther used to host "book readings." What were those about? Hedwig and Linna decide that Esther's "book readings" were "Bolshevik stuff. Jewish stuff."


Hedwig points to her kohlrabi and mentions how much her kids love it. "Rudolf calls me the Queen of Auschwitz," she brags. Linna shows pride in her daughter. We in the audience hear screams from over the wall. The camera focuses on flowers, ending on a red dahlia; the screen turns entirely red.


Lovely young girls read from the Hoess villa guest book. "The heartfelt time we spent in the Hoess house will always be among our most beautiful holiday memories. In the east lies our tomorrow! Thanks for your National Socialist hospitality!"


Rudolf is dressed all in white. There is a lawn party. Rudolf informs Hedwig that he is being transferred. Hedwig, furious, refuses to leave. Approach higher ups, she badgers Rudolf. Tell them that we followed Hitler's plan to colonize the east, she says. They'll have to drag me out of here, she insists. She demands to be allowed to stay in her "paradise."  Rudolf, sad to be parting from his wife, but resigned to her insistence, agrees. He informs the children at dinner that they will be separated, but, "The life we enjoy is very much worth the sacrifice."


Linna rises in the night and looks out the window at the glow of the crematoria. She appears distressed.


Elfryda, a German nanny, is in the attic getting drunk, as Annegret, the baby in her care, wails, as she did at her father's birthday party.


Rudolf is in the stables, informing his horse that he has been transferred and will be leaving her, the horse. He strokes the horse and talks to her, telling her that he understands how hard his absence will be on her, and how much he loves her.


Rudolf is in his office, conducting a business call. He tells his interlocutor that a new transport will arrive tomorrow. "Tell him they're Dutch and he can have his pick." We don't know if "he can have his pick" of sex slaves or slave laborers. We know the Dutch are more desirable than Poles or Jews because they are more Germanic. In fact the man to whom Rudolf refers is Walther Durrfeld, an I. G. Farben engineer who used Auschwitz slave labor. "Heil Hitler etc," Rudolf signs off. A woman arrives and begins to disrobe; he goes to her.


Rudolf is making his way through a tunnel. He arrives at an underground sink. After his contact with the woman, who was possibly a prisoner, possibly Jewish or Polish, and therefore sub-human, Rudolf scrubs his genitals. Rudolf arrives back in his home and discovers that his daughter Inge-Brigit has been sleepwalking, as is her habit. He lifts her up gently. She murmurs that her father feels "Sweaty."


"Shh," he says.


It is night. Again, we see Aleksandra through the lens of an infrared camera. She is distributing pears in a site where Auschwitz prisoners might find them. As we see this, we hear Rudolf's voice reading a bedtime story, Hansel and Gretel, to Inge-Brigit. "Be warned," he says. There is a sign behind Aleksandra warning that she is on the territory of Auschwitz and trespassers will be shot on sight. "Gretel understood what the witch hand in mind," we hear Rudolf, in the voiceover to Aleksandra's action. As Rudolf reads about the witch's shovel, Aleksandra leaves pears near prisoners' shovels. "The witch got cooked alive as a punishment for her horrible deeds." Rudolf voices a little bird from the story. "Pearls and gems for bread crumbs." Aleksandra, in the act of leaving pears for the prisoners, discovers a tin buried in the earth. Aleksandra takes this tin; she places a pear in its place. She leaves the worksite.


While bicycling home, she comes across SS men and a pig. She hides. They leave; she continues on her way. Wanda, her mother, welcomes her home.


In a voiceover, we hear Joseph Wulf, an Auschwitz prisoner. The tin Aleksandra found was left by Wulf. It contains musical notation and lyrics for his song, "Sunshine." We hear Wulf's actual voice reading out the lyrics he wrote. "Radiant and warm / human bodies / young and old / and we / who are imprisoned here / our hearts / are not yet cold."


We now see Aleksandra playing Wulf's song on a piano. "Soul afire / like the blazing sun / tearing. Breaking through their pain / For soon we'll see / that waving flag / the flag of freedom / yet to come." You can read more about Wulf here. You can hear Wulf sing "Sunshine" here.


In the morning, at the Hoess house, the bedroom where Linna had been staying is empty. We assume that Linna left in the night, after watching flames and smoke rise from the crematoria. Linna left a note. Hedwig, annoyed, reads the note silently, then burns it. We never learn what Linna said before she left. We assume that Linna agreed with Nazism up to a point, but once she confronted the flames and smoke from the crematoria out her granddaughters' bedroom window, she couldn't take any more. Or maybe not. We don't know for sure.


Aniela, not knowing that Linna has left, prepares the breakfast table for two. Hedwig sits alone at that table. Hedwig gestures to the place setting for the absent Linna. "Is that there to spite me?" she snarls. "I could have my husband spread your ashes across the fields of Babice," Hedwig warns Aniela.


Elfryda, the German nanny, is in the garden with the children. She is teaching them about flowers.


German Kapo Karl Bohner, a tall and strapping man, is working near the greenhouse. Hedwig is in the greenhouse. Karl enters. Hedwig wordlessly offers him a cigarette. He accepts it and is about to leave the greenhouse. She gestures for him to stay. We understand that they will have a sexual encounter.


Hans, the youngest Hoess son, is on his bedroom floor playing with toy soldiers. He hears his father outside ordering that a man caught fighting over an apple be drowned. "Don't do that again!" Hans whispers.


A prisoner working in the Hoess garden scatters human ashes as fertilizer.


Rudolf is now at his new post, the town of Oranienburg. Oranienburg was the site of one of Nazi Germany's first concentration camps, opened in March, 1933. Rudolf is attending an outdoor concert. One of the audience members is a German soldier with a badly disfigured face. A woman walks a schnauzer; Rudolf bends over to pet the dog and chat with the woman.


In a packed but orderly conference room, concentration camp commandants meet around a long table. Rudolf presents each with a folder outlining his talk. Oswald Pohl, head administrator of concentration camps, outlines the plan to murder all of Hungary's 700,000 Jews, at the rate of 12,000 daily. Rudolf then addresses the meeting, drawing attention to the file folders he has placed before each attendee.


It is winter at the Hoess villa. Klaus locks Hans in the greenhouse, and sits outside, making a hissing sound, reminiscent of escaping gas.


Rudolf meets with his superior, SS Gruppenführer Richard Glucks in Glucks' office. Rudolf stands at attention before Glucks. Glucks asks Rudolf a series of questions and Rudolf answers with clipped one-word replies. "How are you?" "Good." Glucks mentions various aspects of concentration camp operation. To each comment, Rudolf responds with "Okay," "Okay," and "Perfect." He is the obedient unquestioning Nazi. Glucks tells Rudolf he is to be assigned back to Auschwitz, which is of course what he wants. Rudolf reveals no emotion. He accepts his orders dispassionately.


Rudolf is on an examination table. A doctor is palpating his abdomen and asking him how often he moves his bowels and urinates. We can guess that Rudolf has had some stomach complaints.


Rudolf phones Hedwig and reveals his emotions about being placed in charge of the mass murder of Hungary's Jews. "I'm as pleased as punch."


Hedwig tells him to tell Eleanor Pohl where to find valuables she, Hedwig, has hidden in a package she sent her. Rudolf attends a party where guests wear evening gowns and fur coats. The ballroom features a high ceiling and elaborate gilded ornamentation. As Rudolf, on a balcony, gazes at the party below, the voiceover is his phone conversation with Hedwig. "They're calling it Operation Hoess," he says with delight. The mass murder of Hungary's Jews is named after him.


"That's fantastic. I'm so happy for you," Hedwig says.


Rudolf responds that it would be very difficult to gas everyone at the party because the ballroom's ceiling is so high.


Hedwig responds that it's the middle of the night and she needs to go to bed. She hangs up the phone. We don't know if she is troubled by a mass murder being named after her husband, or just annoyed that her husband phoned her in the middle of the night.


Rudolf descends a staircase. On the landing of one flight of stairs, he pauses, bends over, and retches. He descends another flight, and vomits. We can see the stain on the otherwise spotless stairs. Rudolf looks around him, checking to see if anyone has seen him. He looks towards us, the audience. He appears to be looking at blackness penetrated by one small hole of light.


Eventually that black space is revealed to be a door, that opens. Polish cleaning women in blue uniforms, with lanyards around their necks, enter the gas chamber at Auschwitz. They sweep the floor. They move on to the Topf-and-Sons-designed crematorium, and clean it. They enter museum rooms where murdered Jews' luggage has been collected behind glass. The cleaning women wipe the display glass. They wipe the glass behind which lay Jewish people's shoes, and Jewish people's crutches, prostheses, and wheelchairs. This, eighty years ago, would have all been shunted to Canada, to be purloined by people like Rudolf and Hedwig. We are in the modern Auschwitz museum in Poland. And then we are looking at Rudolf, still looking at us. He turns and continues his walk down the flights of stairs, down and down into darkness. We can't see him any more, but we can hear his footsteps going down. The end credits begin. Composer Mika Levi's musical score over the end credits is the voice of pain protesting unimaginable crimes and suffering.


The Zone of Interest. Discussion of the film.


Jonathan Glazer is a 58-year-old English filmmaker. He directed Zone and wrote the screenplay. He was born in London of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. He first gained attention by directing TV commercials and music videos. In 2000, he directed a gangster movie, Sexy Beast. In 2004 he released the psychological drama, Birth, and in 2013 the science fiction film Under the Skin. Nothing in his scant output of three feature films suggested that he'd someday direct a film about the Holocaust that caused reviewers to say that Holocaust films would never be the same.


Martin Amis' 2015 novel The Zone of Interest "unlocked something" in Glazer's mind. He wanted to make a film that caused the audience to see themselves in the perpetrators rather than the victims. In the end, Glazer's film and Amis' book have little in common.


Glazer was intrigued by the Hoess villa sharing a wall with Auschwitz. He deputized researchers who spent four months in the archives of the Auschwitz museum. Glazer's researchers' job was to find any reference in the archives to the Hoess' private lives.


Such material is plentiful. As the Auschwitz museum reports, "In accordance with the Nazi law … after 14 years of age, all [Polish] youth were obliged to perform a designated job by the occupation authorities. 'Girls at this age were therefore sent to the families of the local Germans, especially to officers and non-commissioned SS officers of the camp staff, for whom they washed, cooked, shopped, scrubbed floors and cared for the children,'" reports historian Dr. Piotr Setkiewicz. Aniela Bednarska, a character in Glazer's film, was a real person who wrote a memoir of her time in the Hoess house. The Auschwitz museum has published a book on such memoirs. From the memoir of a Polish prisoner-gardener, Stanislaw Dubiel, Glazer learned of Hedwig Hoess' desire not to leave Auschwitz. That tidbit inspired his film.


Glazer's father opposed his son's plan. "Let it rot," he said, about the Holocaust as a cinematic topic. "I wish we could – because we'd somehow evolved beyond it. But then you read reports of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, the genocides in Darfur, and in other regions of the world, and we clearly haven't," Glazer told The Telegraph in a January 24, 2024 article. The Telegraph added that "A few days after we speak, Hamas will launch its October 7 attack on Israel, killing more Jews in a single day than at any point since 1945."


Glazer recognized that the ethics of Holocaust cinema are complex. "I read a lot about the ethics of Holocaust depiction. And it kept me up at night. Still does," Glazer told the Telegraph. Psychologically normal audiences would not pay to see a strictly realistic film that methodically depicted 12,000 vulnerable civilians, men, women, and children every day, day after day, being terrorized, robbed, stripped, shaved, herded into gas chambers, and reduced to ashes. Accurate depiction of Nazi evil is no less challenging. All too many people are attracted to Nazi power and the supposed glamor of Nazi uniforms. A film risks fetishizing Nazi paraphernalia. So a filmmaker must come up with some way to communicate horror and injustice without graphically depicting horror and injustice.  


Glazer called his directorial approach "Big Brother in the Nazi House." He positioned cameras, some of them hidden, around a real former SS house really located at Auschwitz. The house was refurbished to replicate the Hoess villa, down to a garden it took months to grow. Glazer was not on set, but rather in a van offsite. His actors performed scenes straight through, without stopping to adjust lighting or change perspective. We watch the actors the way we would watch surveillance footage.


"I wanted to avoid all the trappings of cinema – the carefully positioned camera, the nice lighting, the make-up, whatever – because those would empower [the characters] … I had no interest in being close to them or participating in their drama. Frankly, I just wanted to watch them. So reality TV became the aesthetic compass," Glazer said.


Glazer's film is replete with authentic details. Sandra Huller, who portrays Hedwig, wears a peculiar hairstyle that Hedwig wears in an archival photo. Glazer actually met Aleksandra Bystron-Kolodziejczyk. Bystron-Kolodziejczyk had been a Home Army resistance fighter when she was just 12 years old. She did hide food for prisoners. Her heroic story is here.


About Bystron-Kolodziejczyk, Glazer told the Guardian, "It was her bike we used, and the dress the actor wears was her dress. Sadly, she died a few weeks after we spoke … That small act of resistance, the simple, almost holy act of leaving food, is crucial because it is the one point of light. I really thought I couldn't make the film at that point. I kept ringing my producer, Jim, and saying: 'I'm getting out. I can't do this. It's just too dark.' It felt impossible to just show the utter darkness, so I was looking for the light somewhere and I found it in her. She is the force for good."


In the film, Klaus is a bully who plays at concentration camp activities. Aniela Bednarska recorded that the real Klaus was a "great ignoramus," "a future SS man" who was kicked out of many schools. As in the film, Klaus played at concentration camp activities with his siblings, asking a Polish seamstress to sew a Kapo sleeve band for him. He would shoot prisoners with his slingshot.


In the film, Hedwig and Rudolf are in separate beds and have their own lovers. In real life, Hoess reported that Hedwig was reluctant to sleep with him after she found out about the gas chambers. Hedwig has an assignation in a greenhouse with the ironically named German kapo Karl Bohner. Accounts record just such an assignation. As depicted in the film, the Hoess family stole extensively from prisoners, from food to furniture to fur coats. As in the film, Hedwig shared her plunder with friends and relatives. Dubiel specifically refers to Hedwig doling out underwear stolen from "gassed Jewish women." Mieczyslaw Koscielniak was a Polish artist and Auschwitz prisoner. He is known for his drawings depicting life in Auschwitz. Rudolf Hoess summoned Koscielniak to advise him on the relative value of the paintings and other artworks he had stolen, some of them from nearby Polish manor houses. Dubiel reports that Rudolf and Hedwig required four train cars to transport everything they stole.


In the film, Hedwig threatens a Polish forced laborer, Aniela, with death. In real life, just as Hoess killed en masse, he also killed individuals who personally served him. Polish conductor and composer Adam Kopycinski was an Auschwitz prisoner. He was forced to play in the camp orchestra, providing live music for the Hoess family. Kopycinski reports that "The concert in front of Hoess villa was a macabre experience for us, when, about 100 meters away from us, the crematorium chimney spewed out the sweetish smell of burnt corpses. I still remember how during one concert my friend Dulin loudly said 'Dead people stink.' This Dulin was dead the next day."


Dubiel recounts, "They were both fierce enemies of Poles and Jews. They hated everything that was Polish. Hoess' wife very often told me, 'Polish people have to pay … They're here to work until they die.' As for Jews, she believed that they all must disappear from the surface of the earth." Dubiel's testimony can be found here.


Glazer says he was seeking an "authorless," "anthropological," "forensic," "clinical" style. In spite of Glazer's attempt at a clinical approach, and the film's detractors insisting that nothing happens, the images onscreen strike this viewer as abundantly rich and full of opportunities for interpretation. A few examples follow.


Their pet, a hyperactive black dog, accompanies the Hoess family. In European and American folklore, black dogs are associated with death. Muhammad identified black dogs with Satan. And the dog is a Weimaraner, from "Weimar," the republic that fell as Nazism rose.


Rudolf's boots must be cleansed of blood, but the Topf-and-Sons employees can keep their shoes on. Perhaps the bloody / clean shoes dichotomy is an allusion to the many companies that contributed to Nazism but managed to outlive it, like Siemens, now "the fifth largest conglomerate in the world."


In the film's final scene, Rudolf, a man who has shown no emotion so far, suddenly vomits on a pristine stairwell. Some object to that scene; Hoess had no conscience that might cause stomach upset, they insist. In fact, though, in 1947, as he, in a Polish prison cell, awaited his short-drop hanging on the Auschwitz gallows, Hoess suddenly asked to see a priest. Hoess had renounced Catholicism, the church he was brought up in, when he joined the Nazi party. Hoess, it is said, confessed to Polish Jesuit Wladyslaw Lohn. If this is all true, it indicates that Hoess had some realization that what he did was wrong, and that history, and God, would judge him harshly. The cinematic Hoess descends a darkened stairwell. This viewer saw that as Hoess' post-execution descent into Hell.


I disagree with Glazer on two points. First, Glazer depicts a cross hanging on the wall in the Hoess home. Rudolf Hoess renounced Catholicism, his father's religion, when he joined the Nazi Party. Such a renunciation of Catholicism was routine. Nazism was anti-Catholic and anti-Christian.


Second, Glazer has repeatedly said that he wanted to make a film that prompts viewers to conclude that we are like Rudolf Hoess. "We could be watching the daily life of an executive at Google … Serving the corporation that's set him up for life. I wanted to say, 'These people absolutely could be us' – and that human beings still have the capacity for what they did."


"You have to get to a point where you understand [Nazi ideology] to some extent in order to be able to write it, but I was really interested in making a film that went underneath that to the primordial bottom of it all, which I felt was the thing in us that drives it all, the capacity for violence that we all have," Glazer says.


No one is going to make a biopic of LeBron James, or Marie Sklodowska Curie, winner of two science Nobel Prizes, or of J. K. Rowling, and insist that you and I are just like LeBron James, or Curie, or Rowling, or Einstein or Sir Isaac Newton or Bill Gates. We aren't just like any of those people. In the same way that few of us will ever reach the pinnacle of positive human accomplishment, few people will ever reach the putrid depths plumbed by Rudolf Hoess. Hoess was a freak. Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi wrote that "Monsters exist, 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." Many of us might be able to become functionaries. Very few could ever be Rudolf Hoess. And that's a very good thing.


Zone begs for someone to state this: Genesis and Exodus are correct. Humans are made in the image and likeness of God. We are our brother's keeper. God commands us not to commit murder. When humans reject these basic teachings, and the faith in God that compels us to build our lives and our societies around these truths, we commit atrocities. Aleksandra, who risked her young life to scatter food for prisoners, and to do so much more than that, acted in accord with Biblical truths. The proper response to a masterpiece like Zone is to recommit to those truths and to act on our commitment.


1.1 million Jews were deported to Auschwitz. About a million died there. 140,000 Poles were deported; about 70,000 died there. 23,000 Roma were deported to Auschwitz. About 21,000 died there. 15,000 Soviet POWs were deported; about 14,000 died there. 25,000 members of other groups were deported; about 12,000 died there. These numbers are overwhelming. As did Aleksandra Bystron-Kolodziejczyk, we can resist the darkness by the way we live.


Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery



1 comment:

  1. You mention Topf & Sohne, the German company that built the crematory ovens for the Nazi German death camps and "ordinary" concentration camps. The same company had earlier built crematory ovens for the Soviet Communists to dispose of some of their victims. (For more on this, please check the review of Dreyfus and Anstett on my website).


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