Oscar Bait is The Point’s series of conversations about films nominated for the Academy Award for best picture. Today, Christopher Orr, an editor in Opinion and a former film critic, discusses “The Zone of Interest” with Annie-Rose Strasser, Opinion Audio’s executive producer.
Christopher Orr, an editor in Opinion
I found “The Zone of Interest” — the German-language film directed by Jonathan Glazer — to be a worthy and fascinating entrant in the category of Holocaust films. Or perhaps I should say Holocaust-adjacent, in this case literally, as it concerns the lives of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (played by Christian Friedel) and his family in their lavish home, separated from the death camp by a wall topped with barbed wire.
But I gather you were less impressed? Do tell.
Annie-Rose Strasser, executive producer, Opinion Audio
Oh, I was definitely impressed. The brilliant sound design constantly reminds you of the horror unfolding beyond the wall, even though you never see it, and the distant cinematography never lets us get too close to the characters. But while I found it technically impressive, it felt to me more morally questionable.
I thought it was a film about seeing and choosing not to see — and the stylistic details you noted play into that, placing us viewers in a similar vantage point to Höss and his wife (played by Sandra Hüller). We hear snatches of the horrors on the other side of the wall, but we never have to see and directly confront those horrors. Our “experience,” like theirs, is of the allowances the family has to make — hearing the nearby screams and occasional gunfire — to enjoy their privileged life. The whole film seemed to me like a portrayal of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil.
Why did you find the film morally questionable?
It’s not that I think Glazer was painting a sympathetic portrait of Nazis. In fact, I think Friedel’s and Hüller’s characters were completely repugnant, perhaps to a point that made Nazis seem like no one you’d ever know. That was one qualm I had.
I was also left wondering who this movie was for. Other Holocaust movies look straight at the horror. I’m not really sure what this film was meant to do.
I think one answer is that it is for viewers who have seen a number of the many Holocaust films that do force us to look at the Holocaust’s horrors. I strongly recommend 2016’s “Son of Saul,” if you can take it. Glazer’s experiment offers a different lens, to convey the artificial normality that prevailed all around the nightmare. It is chilly and remote by design.
Yes, the film was exceptionally good at capturing the bureaucratic daily operation of mass murder. And maybe Glazer’s intention was to make the horror so drawn out that the viewers become bored by it themselves.
Still, I’m unconvinced that we benefit from that experience. To me, if a film puts its lens on the culpability of everyday society for a horrific event, it should more capture the spirit of “Who Goes Nazi?” than embrace the banal.
But we can agree to disagree here. That’s the joy of talking about film.