The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer

‘The Zone of Interest’ and Our Modern Day Comforts

Can The Zone of Interest, a film about a Nazi commandant and his family, have something to say about the modern day comforts so many enjoy?

The Zone of Interest
Jonathan Glazer
2 February 2024 (UK)

How can someone’s prosperity and happiness directly result from someone else’s exploitation, oppression, and harm? Are there some concealed social relations of oppression and violence behind certain social conditions and even products that make certain peoples’ lives more comfortable and enjoyable? Can we delink one’s individuality from their institutional roles and the effects they have on other peoples’ lives? These are some of the many questions raised by Jonathan Glazer’s fascinating new film The Zone of Interest (2023), which is based on the real story of Rudolf Höss, the Auschwitz commandant, who was one of the key figures in the implementation of Hitler’s final solution. 

The Zone of Interest is an homage to a modernist style à la Brecht as instead of psychologically defined characters and a well-made dramatic plot, Glazer offers us a series of tableaux/vignettes that show moments from the mundane everyday life of Höss (Christian Friedel) and his family. The Hösses reside in a lavish villa next to the notorious extermination camp, and they go about their everyday routine as if the camp and the inmates’ loud cries of anguish do not exist. His wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) meticulously tends to the house garden and proudly proclaims to her mother that her husband calls her “the Queen of Auschwitz.”

Glazer’s penchant for detachment and defamiliarisation is effective as it allows viewers to avoid a knee-jerk understanding of the main character as an embodiment of radical evil. In actual fact, Höss is depicted as a caring father and husband who wholly conforms to the bourgeois model of the family man. But in showing routine aspects of the family’s life in a detached manner, the filmmaker enables viewers to better understand peoples’ capacity to ignore uncomfortable social conditions that account for their own fortune and comfort.

Glazer aptly described his modus operandi in an interview for Sight and Sound: “It became essential to find a film language where I could retain a critical distance from those people without getting caught in their psychology, their interiority and all the things that cinema can do so well.” As such, The Zone of Interest‘s style urges viewers to focus on social behaviours rather than on individuality and to try to perceive the institutional roles played by individuals and their effects on others. 

Consequently, despite the emphasis on the Höss family’s private lives, it is not possible to understand them as characters with intrinsic set characteristics but as parts of a wider apparatus of terror that facilitates the prosperity of a minority at the expense of others whose lives are deemed worthless. It is this aspect of the film that makes it much more complex than many “museum piece” Holocaust historical dramas, which seem to be unable to connect past histories of violence with our contemporary present.

The Zone of Interest’s key argument that the banal bourgeois dream of happiness and prosperity within the family unit relies on the erasure of uncomfortable truths and realities of violence that surround us bespeaks something about the capitalist present. Glazer has also acknowledged his desire to connect the past with the present in an interview for The Guardian, where he said: “For me, this is not a film about the past. It’s trying to be about now, and about us and our similarity to the perpetrators, not our similarity to the victims.”

The question that emerges is how a film about a Nazi commandant and his family, who are blatantly indifferent to the suffering of the people incarcerated in the camp literally next to their comfortable villa, might have something to say about the present? A key starting point is to note that The Zone of Interest indirectly points to how one’s profit and prosperity are directly interrelated with the poverty, violence, and oppression of others. Those who belong to the first category are very keen to ignore those who are in the second one; they take pride in their prosperity, ignoring the labour relations and social conditions of violence and oppression that allow for their comfort.

Karl Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism in the first chapter of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, is relevant in this context. Marx suggests that the intricate faceless form of production in capitalism, as well as the division of labour, masks the labour demanded to produce commodities. In other words, commodities appear as if they have intrinsic value and not as the product of specific social relations of inequality. Capitalist production, thus, conceals the labour power invested in the commodities as well as the conditions of work exploitation. The implication of Marx’s argument is that commodities are fetishised as autonomous objects; this aspect of capitalism masks the violence behind the capitalist processes of production.

Let us simplify this: in their everyday lives, the global North residents using mobile phones, laptops, and tablets as instruments of entertainment, or to facilitate their professional goals, and as means of participating in social life, do not see the labour conditions behind them; when using these devices, they do not perceive the exploitative labour conditions in Asian sweatshops required to expedite their production and circulation. Neither do they see the forced labour of adults and children needed for the extraction of natural resources (such as cobalt) from the global South, which is essential for the manufacturing of these devices.

Indeed, the social relations necessary for the production of commodities that make the lives of certain people easier are obfuscated, and most of us tend to see the products we consume as if they are independent of conditions of geopolitical and labour inequality. Many of us know the violence behind the production process, but we continue our daily routines despite our outrage, as if keeping busy – like Hedwig in The Zone of Interest –  will prevent us from facing the fact that our relative comfort is directly connected with the conditions of exploitation and inequality somewhere else. 

Marx’s argument can enable us to better understand Glazer’s comment on our similarities with the oppressors rather than the oppressed. In The Zone of Interest, this dialectic between prosperity and exploitation is explored through the historical horror of the Holocaust and the defence mechanisms developed by people who directly benefitted in terms of wealth, career, and social standing by the exploitation and mass extermination of other human beings. But as the filmmaker aptly put it earlier, such an acceptance of hierarchies of exploitation/oppression that ensure the well-being of certain people at the expense of others was not something unique to the Nazi era.  For if the real story of the Hösses has something to say in the present it is that people are capable of taking certain systemic conditions of exploitation for granted as long as they facilitate their own wealth and power. 

Works Cited

Marx, Karl. Capital, vol. I. trans. Ben Fowkes. Penguin. May 1992.

O’Hagan, Sean. “Jonathan Glazer on his holocaust film The Zone of Interest: ‘This is not about the past, it’s about now’”. The Guardian. 10 December 2023.

Romney, Jonathan. “That’s the Horror – There’s Nothing Remarkable about these People at All”. Sight and Sound. BFI. 1 February 2024.