Evil can live and fester if it is not seen. Films about the atrocities of humanity often come loaded with the grotesque shock to make that evil sink in. We look at films with gritty violence and tearful victims with sadness, evoking empathy and horror at what we’re capable of. The Zone of Interest is a challenge to the audiences, whether they can still see all that when stripped of their presence. It’s that absence of witnessing genocide that forces us to question how much of it we can feel and how easily it can be ignored.
The Höss family did not find much wrong with living directly next to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1943. They had a relatively big house, plenty of food, servants, and plenty of room in the backyard for their children to play. The backyard also has a clear view of guard towers and fences for the camp. Tranquil walks through the lush garden are tinged with small pops of gunfire and muffled shouting from the camp walls, sometimes from the guards shouting back at Jews and sometimes from the Jews begging for their lives. Smoke sometimes billows out of the stacks. Sometimes, there are human remains in the river.
Nazi leader Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the patriarch of the family, is the only one who knows exactly what goes on behind those walls. Every day, he goes off to work and watches as people are rounded up and exterminated. All he can think about while witnessing such inhumanity is how to be more efficient. He was hired to find the speediest way to destroy as many Jewish people as possible. To him, it’s just a project at the office, and he hopes it will stay there.
Rudolf’s wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) has grown so accustomed to the sounds of living next to the camp. She walks through the garden with her new baby and thinks nothing of the sounds of death just over the fence. She’s become so comfortable with this lifestyle that she wants to stay there, even when Rudolf is reassigned to a new post. Why would she give up a big home with servants and a beautiful garden that’s perfect for parties? That’s all she can think about when the atrocities go unseen.
The sobering moments of realization are quiet. When the grandmother who comes for a visit can’t ignore the gunshots and screams, she departs without notice. When a Polish girl wants to offer help, she only does so by secretly leaving food for the prisoners at their worksite in the dead of night. Even the audience is never given a single shot of the inhuman torture. This all leads to the haunting ending, which skips ahead in time, showcasing the modern-day museum of Auschwitz, holding the dormant machines used for genocide and the clothing left behind. All the horrors are there, but do we recognize them as such when they either go unseen or are treated with the silence of a museum? The film lets the audience sit in darkness for that ending, questioning that aspect of our own perceptions.
The Zone of Interest is one of the most challenging holocaust movies, less for what it shows and more for what it doesn’t show. The children of Rudolf and Hedwig hear the horrible sounds and continue playing with toys, thinking little of the shouts and concealed death. You can’t help but wonder what they’re thinking with their developing minds. At the same, one has to wonder what is going through Rudolf’s mind as he ambles outside for his evening cigarette. There’s enough time to think about how the Jews are being slaughtered. Somewhere beyond the nicotine and white supremacist haircut, there’s a lingering fear. For Rudolf, there’s a fear that he will think about what he is doing. For the audience, there’s a fear that we don’t. As comfortable as it may seem to keep this horrible part of history concealed and safe, it’s ultimately a draining attempt to carry on and a chance for history to repeat itself.