“The Zone of Interest” Has Never Been More Relevant — Why Does It Feel So Empty?

This essay about Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is the first in a series of long-form works of criticism about films nominated for the 2024 Oscars released the week before the ceremony. 


The Zone of Interest is a film of undeniable craft and power. When I watched it last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was struck by its moral clarity in comparison to other Holocaust films. Gone was the sentimentality of Schindler’s List and its even weaker copycats. Instead, Jonathan Glazer and his team of artists captured the humanness of those we’d rather write off as monsters.

Two hours later, I watched Ryūsake Hamaguchi’s upcoming Evil Does Not Exist, another film about the banality of evil, or, to trust the title, the absence of evil even in the presence of total cruelty. The cruel actors of this film aren’t Nazis — they’re land developers. Not even. They’re employees hired to pitch the whims of land developers who won’t even step foot on the land they aim to destroy.

This was the first film I watched that made me question my initial reaction to The Zone of Interest — it wouldn’t be the last.

Since September, I’ve thought of The Zone of Interest while watching several other movies. It speaks to the film’s accomplishments that it has remained at the forefront of my mind, a jagged rock immune to the tumbler of my thoughts. And yet, I’ve often compared it negatively to these other works.

Evil Does Not Exist is somehow a more poetic, a more layered, and a clearer statement about the harms human beings inflict on one another and nature. May December is more effective at showing how people who commit harm convince themselves they are good. Killers of the Flower Moon reveals the humanity of its perpetrators of genocide with an even more sickening complexity. In the Land of Brothers, one of my favorites from this year’s Sundance, is more deft in its portrait of the privileged who live alongside those suffering at their own hands and the hands of their government. And Marcel Ophuls’ Memory of Justice, a 1976 documentary I watched for the first time in December, does a far better job connecting the casual atrocities of the Holocaust to the casual atrocities of its present.

But none of these films are as single-minded in their purpose, and that’s why I keep returning to Glazer’s film rather than comparing these better films to each other. As the months have passed and his film has bumped against these others, I’ve asked myself two questions: What does The Zone of Interest actually accomplish? And should we expect art to accomplish anything?

***

If you search “The Zone of Interest” on Twitter, you’ll find a mix of tweets about the film itself and tweets about the Israeli genocide of Palestinians. Since Israel escalated their ongoing violence against Palestinians after October 7, it has been an obvious connection to make. Whether focusing on Israeli soldiers pilfering items to gift their wives or Israeli citizens having celebrations on the other side of the walls of Gaza, the comparison is clear. Since October, it has been difficult to think of The Zone of Interest without thinking of Palestine. Hell, since October, it has been difficult to think of anything without thinking of Palestine.

Difficult. But not impossible. In an Instagram post, one of the most vocal and violent Zionist public figures, comedian Amy Schumer, shared an image from The Zone of Interest and called it the movie of the year. Steven Spielberg, long a supporter of Israel, called it the best Holocaust film since his own.

I don’t believe art has to answer for every reaction it elicits. I don’t think Amy Schumer and Steven Spielberg’s read of the film as tied solely to the Holocaust and disconnected from the present-day holocaust they support negates the film’s power. But it does reveal the Rorschach nature of art.

Some of the worst political cinema is overt in its messaging. In fear of being misunderstood, it guides the most ignorant audience member to its point. Its intent is not to challenge, but to manipulate. It’s propaganda. Effective, yet artless.

Even when the stakes of our world are so high, I can’t abide by the philosophy that responsible art must be propaganda or glean this lack of subtlety from propaganda. There is humanity in artistry, humanity in complexity.

And yet I can’t shake the thought of an alternate Zone of Interest, one that ends in Israel rather than the museumified Auschwitz. The final moments of this alternate film reveal an Israeli family, settlers of the West Bank perhaps or living next to Gaza led by a patriarch high up in the IDF. They live their peaceful lives as bombs are heard outside, the cries of a tragedy with less global consensus than the Holocaust of so many decades ago.

The team behind The Zone of Interest have brought up the occupation of Palestine during an awards season that has remained largely apolitical despite the political nature of so many of the nominated films. Mica Levi, whose score is the crowning achievement of the film along with its sound design, said at the Critics Circle Film Awards, “I have to say that I wish for a ceasefire and some change in this situation as I’m sure we all do.” And producer James Wilson at the BAFTAs 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.”

These statements are tepid judged against what could be said and brave judged against the rest of the film industry. They are not as overt as the statements comparing the film to Israel found on Twitter. And they are not part of the work itself.

My alternate Zone of Interest that underlines its connection to the present — yes, even the present of when the film was written, Israel’s genocide against Palestinians began long before October of last year — wouldn’t necessarily be a better work of art. Clearer and braver do not equal better.

But if we are to separate The Zone of Interest from its messaging, to insist its artistry as it stands is more important than blunt political propaganda, what is left to celebrate? What does The Zone of Interest reveal as an experience of a film beyond its statement about the banality of evil? Impressive craft?

***

“That wall is a sort of manifestation of how we compartmentalize the suffering of others and normalize the suffering of others,” Jonathan Glazer said in an interview with CNN. “There was nothing exceptional or dynamic about them. They were grotesquely familiar. And I think what we were trying to do with the film was find a space or create a space where the viewer could actually project themselves onto them… It’s not saying look at what they did. It’s saying look at what we do.”

Listening to these words, I question who Jonathan Glazer includes when he says we. Because I actually think there’s a gulf of difference between even an SS officer and an average German citizen in 1941. There’s a difference between being complicit in the violence of your government and being an active participant.

To smooth out the differences between, say, Joe Biden, a member of the U.S. military recruited as a lower income teen, and a U.S. citizen going about their day-to-day life is to replace responsibility with a depressed shrug. Even if the average U.S. citizen should reflect more on our complicity with the crimes of our government, that reflection must contain an awareness of what we can and cannot change. We can’t recycle our way out of climate change, nor vote our way out of genocide.

The Zone of Interest includes a literal negative image to its central Nazi family. These sequences portray a girl who sneaks food to people in the concentration camp. In that same CNN interview, Glazer describes this as the film’s hope. This is once again a flattening. There is bad (Nazis) and good (girl who sneaks food). Absent are the people between and beyond these poles. What about the complicit Germans who didn’t run Auschwitz? What about the people whose resistance expanded beyond sneaking food?

There are many ways to be complicit and many ways to resist. Many of us even are complicit in some ways, while resisting in others. To grapple with the way we allow atrocities to occur, these complexities must be acknowledged. The Zone of Interest acknowledges none of these complexities.

Nazis are bad but still love their families, isn’t a statement I find particularly challenging. Even when presented with striking performances, precise cinematography, and a remarkable score and sound design.

***

There’s one aspect of The Zone of Interest I find more interesting than its banality of evil message. It’s the way SS officer Rudolf Hoss’ wife Hedwig speaks to her servants.

Much of the film is operating in a split consciousness. We’re watching this family go about their lives while haunted by the sound design and our prior knowledge of the atrocities on the other side of the wall. But in the moments with Hedwig and her servants, the cruelty is not implied. As portrayed by the always great Sandra Hüller, Hedwig is a frightening portrait of entitlement and anger.

And yet, it seems odd to be disturbed by the rudeness of a a woman so directly involved in genocide. For the first time, I felt challenged by the film. Why was I able to have more of an emotional reaction to this mundane meanness than the greater horrors across the wall?

Maybe this is a personal problem, but I think it’s a cultural one. I think a lot of us are better equipped to respond to smaller wrongs than incomprehensible evils. Maybe this is why I find it easier to get upset at celebrities for remaining neutral than to fathom the actions of our politicians. Maybe this is why I confused arguing with my family about Israel for the last decade with actually doing something.

As people, we often seem incapable of comprehending mass tragedy, even though it’s people committing these actions. And if we can’t comprehend it, how will we stop it? While I find myself liking The Zone of Interest less and less, I still admire Jonathan Glazer’s desire to do something, to use his many talents to say something about the cruelty of man. It won’t change the world, but most art won’t.

The Oscars take place this weekend, and Glazer’s acceptance speech for Best Foreign Language Film is likely the best chance at a mention of Israel’s genocide of Palestinians during the ceremony. Will that even matter in an industry that churns out military propaganda every year? Am I once again latching onto what I can see while ignoring the greater issues on the other side of many walls?

I don’t think there’s an answer. Art can change minds. Public statements can change minds. They also cannot replace on-the-ground activism and organizing. And often, everything fails in the face of empire.

But we must keep fighting the larger forces — and the individuals who create the larger forces — that cause mass tragedy. We must fight them with our words and with our art and with our bodies. We must sneak food to people in concentration camps even as we admit that’s not a perfect negative to evil. It’s just a person doing what they can to make the world a little better instead of a little worse.

It all feels so insufficient in comparison to the suffering. Good. It should. We should never stop striving to do more. Not until Palestine is free. Not until the American empire has fallen. Not until there is no one on either side of a wall, because the walls have ceased to exist.


The Zone of Interest is now available to rent

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!
Related:

Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 520 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. Well, most of The Zone of Interest – sans the Oranienburg part – is set in the occupied territory, so it would be quite hard to find there a German citizen who wouldn’t be complicit. And to be honest, asking for “more nuanced” German characters within the context of this movie is pretty wild for me. (The girl is local, so probably Polish; therefore, working for the Germans makes her an ambivalent figure, and Glazer clashes her with his weird fairy tale thing, so she doesn’t work as a clear opposition to the Hösses, it’s much messier than that).

    • I was going to point out the same thing – I think this review somewhat oversimplifies the nuance of the film, along with the fact that ‘regular’ Germans, not just in the occupied territory, actively upheld the Nazi regime, not just passively . See the part where Hedwig’s mum jokes about how she lost out at the auction of her Jewish employees curtains.

    • * there were around 4 thousand German prisoners in total, according to the Auschwitz museum website, but I’m not sure about their citizenship + if I understand correctly, you don’t mean this kind of “complexity”. (also, still wild and a whole different story!).

    • Yes, the girl in the film who hides food for the prisoners is Polish (obviously, since Auschwitz is in Poland), and also existed in real life. Jonathan Glazer met with her, she died before the film came out. The young actress portraying her is wearing that real woman’s actual dress, and also riding her actual childhood bike.

  2. My own reading of Zone of Interest was less the banality of evil in a normal people do terrible things way, and more that evil infects even the most banal parts of life if you are committing it. The commander and his wife are so proud of this middle upper class life that they’ve built and of their children but the holocaust touches every part of it. Their baby won’t stop crying, their dog is constantly on edge and anxious, their kids play in rivers with body parts and pretend to lock each other in gas chambers, the commander can’t stop throwing up and picturing murdering his peers. They can’t have a normal life because they are doing evil. This initially was a movie that I dreaded watching, and ended up making my top ten this year because I thought it actually had something to say much more than most holocaust movies.

  3. “Listening to these words, I question who Jonathan Glazer includes when he says we.”

    Us. All of us. Every single one. They’re all just humans. The difference between the complicit and the active participants isn’t fundamental, it’s circumstantial.

  4. When did the Jews attack German families in their homes, murder their children as they hid, rape and murder teenage girls, laughing as they did it? Because Israel’s “genocide” as you call it wouldn’t have started with Hammas’ attack on October 11. This is what Hammas wanted for their people.

    There is no valid comparison between what’s happening in Gaza and the Holocaust in which 6million Jews were intentionally slaughtered.

    • Do you truly think that the only victims of the Gaza war are Hamas soldiers?
      Do you truly think that the unfair treatment of Palestinians started last year?

      The contemporary message of this film has two halves:
      -Upper class privilege of those who live in gated communities employing cheap labor and insulate themselves (both physically and mentally) from the misery that surrounds them, where their serfs live
      -Indifference towards the suffering of innocent people who are being killed by your government just beyond your borders while you lead a comfortable and otherwise regular life.

      In both cases the film shows you how utterly “normal” people who lead these lives can be, how brazenly normalized the violence can be, and the how easy it is for these problems to reoccur when nobody questions the status quo.

      The movie is telling you that this sort of thing can happen at any time and place as long as we keep letting them happen.

      The Cuban blockade, for example, has gone on for decades thanks to the US government and has caused irreparable damage to Cuba. There is no real reason for it to continue other than it’s just easier for US politicians to hope their citizens ignore the problem.

    • I also like that it avoided the sensationalized and highly cliché portrayal of concentration camps of other movies that just do “suffering-porn” when they try to talk about the holocaust. They usually use the suffering of jews as a way to make money and a name for themselves (indirectly, as a secondary objective)

    • It’s October 7th, and you are spreading long-debunked Zionist atrocity propaganda about that day. And yes, there is a comparison in the sense that they are both genocides!

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!