Zone of Interest

Zone of Interest poster (2023) | Jonathan Glazer (dir.) / A24

The text that follows, an essay inspired by the film Zone of Interest, was commissioned by a German newspaper that I write for every now and then. It was summarily rejected. Other rejections swiftly followed—though one editor confided, “It’s not because of the quality of your writing.”  

The film tells the story of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höß and his wife, who strive to build a perfectly ordinary life for their family in a pleasant house just outside the walls of the camp. One poster for the film shows an extended family enjoying a picnic on a luxuriant green lawn next to a barely perceptible barbed wire fence, beneath a vaulting sky that is perfectly black—as if to suggest an infinite abyss.  

Germany’s vaunted “memory culture,” and the silence from German editors that greeted the following essay, reminds me of that black nothingness above the idyllic picnic scene. The refusal to challenge the success of the German “memory culture” through refusing the criteria for such success is, in fact, an example of what this text is about.

Zone of Interest, by British director Jonathan Glazer, is a film about Germany’s culture of ignorance during World War II, which I claim has turned into Germany’s “memory culture,” where the focus on what is being remembered and what can be forgotten is just as unquestioned. At the center of the film is a distinctive German sort of Gesamtkunstwerk, a placid enactment of everyday life next door to a death camp. The banality of what happens just outside the walls of Auschwitz, Glazer’s film suggests, is an inherent, essential part of the Holocaust. It is because the crematoriums continued to smoke, that the Höß family—but also every Müller family in Berlin or Stuttgart—could dream of successfully realizing their own petit-bourgeois aspirations.

The film makes it clear that Höß and his family were after success of that kind. Once they had achieved what was socially defined as success, they were very proud. Stolz, proud, is another charged German word that became almost an idiom in those days. The search—which becomes a longing, and at some point an addiction—for something to be proud of, demands, when present to its extreme extent, first and foremost a need for conformity to a system that determines what success and what failure are, who is a good citizen and who is a bad one, who can be proud and who should be ashamed. Should one ever question the system that measures success in these terms, it becomes difficult to reap that success.

In Germany to this day, it is widely believed that if you only do certain things, hold certain ideas, and follow certain steps that everybody before and after you has followed, you will find success. But the concept of success is subjective and can be engineered—and is being engineered—constantly in front of our very eyes. It seems to always serve somebody else’s interest, to have us strive for something. The car industry sells us success as owning a large, expensive car; generally, under capitalism, for example, success means having money and being able to buy stuff. 

In Nazi Germany, by comparison, the worldview regarding success was reorganized so that, among other things, in order to be successful, one would have to ignore Germany’s systematic murder factories. The Höß family, like many Germans at that time, was successful under the definition of success that had been engineered and designed for them.

Besides being the extreme expression of a murderous antisemitic ideology, Auschwitz was also a by-product of the German bourgeois striving for a big house with a garden, two blonde children, and a beautiful garden. Over decades, we have learned about the dangers of the expression of the Nazi ideology inside Auschwitz; a film like Zone of Interest shows us the anodyne preconditions for doing evil on the other side of the fence. 

One goes to Auschwitz today to see, to feel, to smell the remains of the camp as if it were a satanic temple of horrors. But the green fields of the adjacent houses outside the camp are part of the horror. The story of the gas chambers and crematoria is the story of gardens with a German shepherd, of fishing with one’s children on weekends, of successful men and their proud housewives. It’s almost shameful—how relatively easy it has been, in all these years of memory work, to just look inside Auschwitz without seeing its surroundings as an equally essential part of the story.

In a way, our memory culture both in Germany and in Israel is an exact reversal of the reality revealed by the film. Perhaps that’s why the film seems to annoy many people in Germany, who complain that it shows the “perpetrator’s perspective.” But memory must also be a memory of perpetration and its normalization; that is the difference between an honest memory and a convenient one.

I consciously use Auschwitz here as a synecdoche for all concentration camps, ghettos, Holocaust memorials, and museums. But these places of memory are not only limited spatially, they are also limited temporally. The focus of German memory culture being exclusively on the Auschwitzes and not on the gardens with shepherd dogs and fishing on the weekend meants that the blinding mechanism, the comfort of being outside Auschwitz—not only on the safe side of the wall but also outside the time period of WWII—is still alive and dangerous. 

What we currently experience is perhaps the most documented catastrophe of our time in Gaza. And yet many refuse to acknowledge it. I am not comparing or equating the Holocaust with current events unfolding in Gaza, but rather trying to point at how German memory culture has reinforced some of the mechanisms of looking away. For example, in his VE-Day speech of 1985, German president Richard von Weizsaecker famously called May 8, 1945, a day of liberation, “an end bearing seeds of hope for a better future.” In this way, he implicitly took the blame off of millions of ordinary people working in factories side-by-side with forced laborers; train drivers, university rectors, good citizens ratting on their Jewish neighbors; good citizens moving slightly quickly into the apartments of said Jewish neighbors; and many others, who after all believed, as he also said, “that they were fighting and suffering for the good of their country.” This wishful way of thinking is still very prevalent today in Germany. One example is the difference between the number of Germans who helped Jews during World War II (way below 1 percent) and the number of Germans who believe their grandparents had done so (18 percent, according to recent research).

Hannah Arendt described Adolf Eichmann—who was, she wrote, a “law-abiding citizen”—as someone for whom “as the months and years passed, his need for feelings disappeared altogether.” The Höß couple also didn’t need feelings as their family flourished next door to a death camp. The contrast between the passion with which the Israeli and Palestinian directors Yuval Abraham and Basel Adra were attacked by politicians and the German press at the end of the Berlinale film festival for speaking up for a ceasefire and the indifference with which most Germans ignore the atrocities occurring in Gaza is as stark a warning as the image of a picnicking bourgeois family refusing to look up and see the abyss.