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Eichmann in Auschwitz

Irony pervades The Zone of Interest

Adolf Eichmann considered himself a Zionist. After years of fruitless service as a low-ranking Nazi, he was transferred to a new department concerned with the “Jewish question” in the mid-1930s and required to read Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat. The book “converted Eichmann promptly and forever to Zionism,” according to Hannah Arendt’s account in Eichmann in Jerusalem, and he began to think obsessively about getting “some firm ground under the feet of the Jews.” As a result, he enthused over various schemes to resettle European Jews in Madagascar or the Nisko region of Poland, neither of which caught on with his superiors. But soon Eichmann was able to reconcile this “idealism” with his country’s new policy of forcibly emigrating Jews in its territory.

He would remember the year he spent as the head of the Center for Emigration of Austrian Jews, beginning in March 1938, as the happiest and most successful of his life. One hundred and fifty thousand people—60 percent of Austria’s Jewish population—were gone within eighteen months (presumably, in Eichmann’s mind, to firmer ground than the Reich). Eichmann felt he could “do justice” both to Jews who wanted to emigrate from hostile territory and to the authorities who wanted to be rid of them, and he fondly recalled he and his staff “pulling together” with Jewish officials to achieve this. (Of course, none of this is to suggest that Eichmann was never an antisemite; only that personal prejudice appears to have limited explanatory power when it comes to his actions.)

Times soon changed. The “political solution” that Herzl had convinced Eichmann was the proper answer to the Jewish question was dropped in favor of a physical solution: extermination. During this latter period, Eichmann received a telegram from the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, informing him that a new prisoner was requesting to see him. It was Kommerzialrat Storfer, a one-time representative of the Viennese Jewish community who Eichmann fondly remembered as an upstanding partner in his emigration work. Eichmann traveled to Auschwitz for what he remembered as a “normal, human encounter” with his old friend. He informed Storfer that there was no way he could free him. Storfer asked instead if there was some way that he might be relieved from the backbreaking labor required at the camp. Eichmann dutifully relayed this request to Höss, who countered that no Auschwitz prisoner could be relieved of work. So Eichmann negotiated a creative solution: Storfer’s job would be to sweep the camp’s gravel paths with a broom.

Eichmann delivered the news to a relieved Storfer and shook his hand before departing the camp joyfully. Six weeks later, Storfer was dead.

Neither this scene nor any others taking place behind the walls of Auschwitz appear in The Zone of Interest, the Oscar-nominated film from British director Jonathan Glazer. Its subject, as you surely know by now, is not the 1.1 million people who were murdered at the camp, nor those who beat and shot and gassed them, but instead the domestic life of Höss, the commandant.

The very texture of The Zone of Interest appears calibrated to mute the conventional representational experiences of pathos, empathy, and identification.

Glazer has received much acclaim both for the seeming boldness of this narrative choice and the formal means by which he executes it. While the overarching story is conventional in its contours—a family’s pastoral idyll is briefly disrupted (by an order transferring Höss to a different post) and then restored—much of the action itself is improvised. Glazer rigged the house where most of the drama unfolds with cameras and microphones and in some cases asked the actors to move about for long periods as if they were conducting their daily lives. Sometimes they didn’t know when the cameras were even rolling. Glazer dubbed this approach “Big Brother in the Nazi house.”

Most reviewers argue that the success of The Zone of Interest lies in this radical foregrounding of ordinary, recognizable human beings who, despite their seemingly unexceptional psychology, perpetrated and enabled the Holocaust. To the extent that the film or these reviewers are offering an insight, it is an old one, and hardly obscure. The 1963 publication of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem ensured that part of its subtitle, “the banality of evil,” became the terrain on which all future claims about complicity in the Holocaust were debated. The motives and even the actions of a functionary perpetrating genocide, Arendt argued, could individually appear just as petty, risk-averse, careerist, or above all ordinary as those of any person who in other contexts we would declare innocent and unremarkable.

Many cite this viewpoint approvingly and claim that Glazer’s film is a striking dramatization of Arendt’s thesis. It’s not hard to see why: with his dutiful but ineffectual personal manner and rote careerism, the Rudolf Höss depicted in The Zone of Interest resembles no one so much as the Eichmann that Arendt depicts in her book. (In fact, he resembles Arendt’s Eichmann more than he resembles her own sketches of the historical Höss, who was ultimately executed in 1947 for his role in the Holocaust.)

But can it really be the case that the success of the film lies simply in its recapitulation of possibly the most famous claim ever made about complicity in the Holocaust? Glazer, for his part, appears to have had a different inspiration in mind. (It was not the 2014 Martin Amis novel of the same name, which most seem to agree can’t be considered source material for the film in any meaningful sense). According to a profile of the director in The New York Times Magazine, for nearly a decade Glazer agonized over whether or not he was doing the right thing in making the film. Then, well into post-production—which in Glazer’s account was actually more like a “rewriting” of the film—he found the text that blessed his project: a passage from the philosopher Gillian Rose, who had advised the Polish government on its redesign of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum before her death in 1995. In her final book, Mourning Becomes the Law, she dismissed the recently released Schindler’s List as an evasive act of mere sentimentality, and called instead for Holocaust cinema that portrayed “the life story of a member of the SS in all its pathos, so that we empathize with him, identify with his hopes and fears, disappointments and rage, so that when it comes to killing, we put our hands on the trigger with him.”

This, of course, is a tall order. It might be unsettling indeed if The Zone of Interest had attempted to portray Höss and his wife, Hedwig, in the lyrical terms Rose suggests, their lives evincing richness and depth. It would have been, at the very least, a big risk—one that might have resulted in the achievement Rose describes but also might have made the film dangerously open to misreading. Glazer and his actors, however, have not taken that risk. Rudolf, dutiful father though he does appear to be, is an inexpressive workaholic who summons an apparently underage servant girl for an affair and admits to an obsession with the logistics of gassing large numbers of people. Hedwig is cruel and threatening to her servants, casually antisemitic, and speaks approvingly of her family’s life as the realization of Hitler’s settler-colonial vision of securing new Lebensraum, or “living space,” for the German people.

Pathos for these Nazis was always going to be a tough sell, but the script cedes that possibility. So, too, do the actors, with Sandra Hüller, who plays Hedwig, remarking that the character was not “worth” empathy. “All the anger I have towards these people went into allowing Hedwig to be empty, to not allow her any feelings or connection, any sense of beauty, elegance or love,” she told Variety. “All these feelings we all have, I felt were not possible when you consciously allow people to be killed next door.”

Still, just as it would be pedestrian to insist on a metric of “likability” to determine whether or not Glazer had fulfilled Rose’s calling, it’s likewise unfair to focus on the uncomfortable fact that his actors’ intentions appeared quite at odds with his. But even setting aside these points and looking solely at Glazer’s formal construction of the film, the very texture of The Zone of Interest appears calibrated to mute the conventional representational experiences of pathos, empathy, and identification—not heighten them.

The film is shot almost exclusively in static medium and long shots, which are held for unusually long durations, a technique that eschews the directive quality of conventional narrative filmmaking. Instead of using close-ups and eyeline shots to direct viewers’ focus to the actors and therefore to the human drama (to encourage identification, in other words), these compositions function much like landscape paintings, allowing the eye to go where it will—and, given the painstaking reconstruction of Höss’s large, tastefully furnished house and lush garden that was undertaken for the production, there is plenty to take in.

It’s not just the possibility of pathos that flies out the window at the first invocation of the word Auschwitz but also the possibility of the film making any specific intellectual demands of its viewers at all.

The result of all this documentary naturalism is that most of the film recalls a video art installation that one might stumble upon in a museum far more than it recalls what we’d normally call cinema. I had this thought early on in the film, bashfully, and felt unsure that I’d ever want to verbalize it; maybe too much Hollywood had made me a philistine after all. But then the movie arrives at its resolution, such as it is, and I could not help but think I was on to something. Leaving a doctor’s appointment where he’s received a clean bill of health, Rudolf has just called Hedwig and happily (“pleased as punch,” in his words) informed her he’s been reassigned and can return home. As he walks down the stairs of the empty administrative building, he pauses on each landing to dry heave. Then, the film cuts to the present day, where the janitorial staff of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is shown cleaning the floors and glass panels of the exhibits before guests are allowed in. The scene lasts for several minutes before cutting back to Höss’s face. It is, as far as I can remember, the only eyeline shot in the film.

This is not pathos; it is irony. Perhaps we were expecting Höss’s unexpected bodily convulsions to be the result of his conscience’s revolt at the reality of his work, but no, it appears instead that it’s some sort of premonition of the unexpected institutionalization of his legacy—the banality of it, one might even say. And while this is the most pointed such moment in the film, a generalized irony is in evidence throughout. The bucolic scenes of the Höss garden play out against the backdrop of the film’s celebrated soundtrack, a bleak mélange of screams, gunshots, and industrial din coming from just over the camp wall.

This irony is both entirely consonant with the aforementioned narrative and visual construction of the film and baked into its very concept. Whatever work is made possible by its many distancing effects is already exhausted before the end of the film’s lush, sun-drenched, beatific first scene. It’s not just the possibility of pathos that flies out the window at the first invocation of the word Auschwitz but also the possibility of the film making any specific intellectual demands of its viewers at all. We are instead left to drift in the film’s admittedly rich and remarkable audiovisual texture, an experience that many have clearly found gratifying and unsettling and even moving but none have convincingly argued is actually revelatory. The film may disavow didacticism, but in offering only a studied naturalism in its place, it concedes to the preexisting frames that the audience inevitably brings to the infamous events against which it unfolds.

The reviewers who cite The Zone of Interest as a faithful portrayal of Hannah Arendt’s arguments in Eichmann in Jerusalem would do well to revisit the far more productive and deliberate use that irony is put to in Arendt’s work. The Eichmann trial, for all its fanfare and self-evident import, was almost farcical in Arendt’s eyes, with the evidence demonstrating that “the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.” Eichmann seemed both aware that he had committed heinous, unforgivable acts and at the same time remarkably consoled by clichés that assured him that his conduct was always dutiful. He outright admitted to arranging the transport of hundreds of thousands of Jews to death camps, and yet the Israeli prosecution seemed to feel that it had to strain to prove that at least one killing was done on his own initiative. Eichmann was on the one hand viscerally repulsed by the increasingly murderous endgame of the Third Reich as the war went on, and yet, unlike other Nazi officials, he never wavered in his implementation of Hitler’s monstrous orders even as German defeat appeared more and more certain.

Arendt’s point in highlighting these ironies was not to dwell on the character traits of committed Nazis—she clarified in a later postscript that she never intended to write “a theoretical treatise on the nature of evil,” and that the compatibility of Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness” with his murderous duties constituted neither an “explanation” nor a “theory”—but instead to illustrate the folly of understanding the Nazis’ crimes against humanity in psychological terms at all. The question was not so much how such a man could have done such things, but instead how so many different personalities in the Third Reich, many of whom were reflexively averse to murder, could all have been conscripted into roles that collectively carried it out on a mass scale.

For Arendt, in other words, Eichmann’s banal personality was only a starting point for an explanation of complicity in the Holocaust, not a conclusion. Eichmann’s case was just a pinhole into which one might glimpse “the aura of systematic mendacity that had constituted the general, and generally accepted, atmosphere of the Third Reich,” which ably conscripted Eichmann’s peculiar personality to such monstrous ends. She refers to the phenomenon as a “moral collapse”—one that occurred not merely within people but between them.

It is this broader question, about the social conditions that channel the human capacity for petty self-interest and banality into barbarism, that Glazer’s film elides. But this is the only question that could possibly matter as we seek to prevent such barbarism in the future. In refusing to let such questions intrude upon its warped domesticity, The Zone of Interest makes complicity seem entirely a matter of blinkered psychology—which, were it the case, would surely doom us all.