Glimpsing the Sun

CW: the Holocaust, antisemitism, genocide, Nazism

Jonathan Glazer’s recent The Zone of Interest (now showing at Palace and Dendy) is a Holocaust film without a Holocaust. 

Ostensibly, the film is a snapshot of the family life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss in late 1943. Höss reads bedtime stories to his daughter, is given a canoe for his birthday, and teases his wife, Hedwig, about her laugh. She catches up with her mother, gossips with other Nazi wives, and teaches her sons the art of gardening.

But the Höss home is adjacent to the death camp; their garden shares an adjoining wall with Auschwitz I. Like the family, we are blind to the Holocaust next door. But we are not deaf to it. The sounds of industrial slaughter — screams, gunshots, trains hissing, crematorium crunching, and less identifiable noises — are played, ceaselessly, throughout the film. They are ambient. 

Against the visuals of idyllic domesticity, this brutal soundscape has a jarring, alienating effect. You almost wonder whether you’re overhearing Dune 2 next door, or if Palace is undergoing particularly quarrelsome renovations. When the film arrives on HBO Max next month, I’m sure some laptop viewers will assume a long-forgotten YouTube tab is piping up.

It has been said of Holocaust literature that ‘one does not look directly at the sun’. So Glazer listens. (The quote is attributed to Aharon Appelfeld. Unfortunately, there’s no record of him saying it.) But the sensory element — the abbreviation of the Shoah to the sound of the Shoah — is not the director’s only trick. He also steals glimpses; at the risk of extending the metaphor ad nauseam, he uses sunglasses. These are irony, microcosm, and childhood.

The original Zone of Interest (2014), by Martin Amis, is a vicious, obscene, absurd satire of the Holocaust. Its only major similarity with our film is that it stars Höss (or a thinly fictionalised version of him). Other than this, it’s a completely different story. So why does Glazer present his film as an adaptation?

I think the film preserves, in ice, the satirical quality of the book. It is not a funny film, of course — you should walk home silent and horrified — but I hope I’m not splitting hairs too finely when I say that it is ironic, or comic in form. When Rudolf (only this film can make you first-name a Nuremberg defendant) is transferred to Berlin, his wife throws a fit and begs to stay at Auschwitz:

“This is our home. We’re living how we dreamed we would…out of the city finally, and our children strong and healthy and happy.”

I thought Rudolf would ignore this odious appeal. But he makes an arrangement. The family will remain at Auschwitz, as knowing and profiting neighbours of genocide, while Rudolf lives and works in the capital. There is something very blackly comic about a family choosing to live at Auschwitz because they really like the property.

Later, as Hedwig is giving her mother a tour of the garden, the familiar gunshots suddenly crescendo. Both women notice. Trying in vain to return her mother’s attention to the pot plants, Hedwig speaks louder and gestures desperately.

The old lady wonders aloud:

‘Maybe Esther Silberman is over there. The one I used to clean for. She was the one who had the book readings…Bolshevik stuff. Jewish stuff.

And I got outbid on her curtains at the street auction.’

Another time, we hear a story about the same sordid appropriations. A Nazi wife was given a choice of Jewish-owned dresses, but ‘chose one that belonged to some little Jewess half her size’. She said it’d make her lose weight. 

These stories aren’t funny; but they have a comic structure and pacing to them. They are almost-jokes, with almost-punchlines.

While Rudolf is on assignment in Berlin, he phones home to tell Hedwig about a high-society Nazi party he attended:

‘I was too busy thinking how I’d gas everyone in the room. Very difficult, logistically, because of its high ceiling.’

I venture that this is a distinctly Jewish irony. The pogrom punchline, the ghetto guffaw, the work-camp wise-crack. The whole absurd situation of the film — the distasteful, oblivious indulgence of the Hösses — satirises the wilful, terrible ignorance of the German people; and, finally, the satire and the irony become indistinguishable from the horror.

In the fifth season of Seinfeld, Jerry famously makes out in the theatre during Schindler’s List. Coincidentally, I’m sure, the irony is impressed on the audience in a manner peculiarly reminiscent of The Zone of Interest. We see Jerry French kissing (or “necking”, as his mother later says with a shudder), but hear woeful music and barked German. These are the same sounds which are keeping Rudolf Höss’ daughter awake at night. Both Glazer and Seinfeld embody the Jewish tradition of Holocaust satire which softens, but never sanitises, the tragedy.

(Not even Spielberg could look directly at the sun. Between shoots of Schindler’s List, he would watch Seinfeld reruns to cheer himself up.)

Glazer’s second pair of sunglasses is microcosm. Pay close enough attention to the Höss garden, and you begin to make out a Holocaust in miniature. There is a train set in the garden; we see train smoke over the walls. There is an outdoor shower. Burnt human remains from next door are used to fertilise the soil. On his 41st birthday, Rudolf is walked out blindfolded onto the lawn — only to be shown his present, a canoe. That afternoon, Rudolf has meetings with engineers about the design of the furnaces; Hedwig boasts about the garden being ‘all [her] design’. She calls her husband a ‘busy bee at work’ while we watch bees among the flowers. She educates her son in the proper identification of weeds. Later, he locks his brother in the greenhouse. In one particularly memorable scene, swelling death screams accompany closeup stills of chrysanthemums and white and purple dahlias — Jewish lives. Later, Rudolf sends a memo to his SS subordinates restricting the picking of flowers. It is dreadfully suggestive of arguments between Nazi departments over access to prisoner labour. This is a horticultural Holocaust: a tinted mirror which helps Glazer safely observe the “sun” and its squalid details.

Glazer’s last trick is childhood. There are four children in the film, and their reactions to the adult horrors around them epitomise the reactions to the Nazi regime.

The first is the fantasy of rebellion. In haunting thermal-image scenes, a young Polish girl sneaks, incredibly, into the camp work area. She leaves a trail of half-buried apples for the prisoners. As a voice-over, Rudolf Höss reads the bedtime story of Hansel and Gretel to his daughter. The girl’s quest culminates in the discovery of a sequestered poem, which is duly and movingly recited. The hopeful fantasy of this sequence is annihilated when one of the Höss boys (onscreen) hears a soldier (offscreen) explaining why he shot someone:

‘Fighting over an apple, Commandant.’

In the Ost, in the Bloodlands, native (especially Polish) resistance was daring but always viciously punished. In a way, the story of the little Polish girl is a fairytale version of the Warsaw Uprising, and the subsequent retaliatory obliteration of the city. As Rudolf recites in the voice-over: ‘The witch got cooked alive as a punishment for her horrible deeds.’

Rudolf’s children are analogues for the German people: they are emotionally stunted, traumatised young Nazis. (There is no Boy-in-the-Striped-Pyjamas fantasy of young German innocence. A wise choice, given the historical controversy that book provoked.) 

After one boy hears the apple-fighter being killed, he mutters to himself ‘Don’t do that again.’ Who is he talking to? Is he telling himself not to pay attention again to the happenings next door? Or is he mimicking the commands of the guards? Later, we see him sitting on his bed, hissing the sounds of the gas chambers.

Another time, he is woken up by his brother’s bedside lamp.

‘I’m looking.’

‘At what?’


In the next scene, the boy’s phrase is tellingly echoed by his sister, clearly also traumatised, who has a habit of sleepwalking. Rudolf discovers her in the middle of the night in a trance.

‘What are you doing there?’

‘I’m passing out sugars.’

‘To who?’

‘I’m looking.’

Like the Polish girl, Rudolf’s daughter sees (or rather, hears) the humanity of the internees. But her insomniac mourning, and her charity, are undirected. Perhaps Glazer is talking about the Germans who suspected something rotten in the East but never did anything substantial about it.

When asked in an interview why he called his book The Zone of Interest, Amis explained that it had a threefold meaning. The name refers to the Nazi administrative term (Interessengebiet) for the depopulated and patrolled area around Auschwitz; to the zone of fascination, both for Amis himself and our culture at large; to the revealing moral zone where people discover themselves. In his own Zone of Interest, Glazer uses children to populate this last zone.

So Glazer listens and dons sunglasses. Somehow, though, he finds hope at the end of all this oblique appraisal. Rudolf, stuck in Berlin, is descending stairs when something catches his eye. We cut to the present: cleaners in jeans wiping the floors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. We see the suitcases and pyjamas and crutches and shoes and portraits of the prisoners. The cleaners mop away. It’s a long scene. One reviewer put it perfectly: ‘the banality of good’ to challenge Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’.

And when the camera returns to Rudolf, the sounds of cleaning — of expiation — seem to stay with him. Just as we could not shake the sounds of evil, Rudolf Höss cannot shake the sounds of good. Just as our culture cannot shake the memory of the Holocaust, Höss could not, in Glazer’s telling, shake the premonitions of liberation.

This attitude of hope has its source in the production of the film, I suspect. Alexandria Bystroń-Kołodziejczyk (a gloriously, proudly unpronounceable Polish name) was the real Polish resistance fighter who snuck apples into Auschwitz and saved the poem of Joseph Wulf. Glazer met her weeks before she died — enough time to arrange shooting in the house she lived in, and to use her dress and bike as props in the movie. He told the Guardian that, without her, he could not have made the film. It would have been ‘utter darkness’. 

In his Oscars acceptance speech, his hands trembled, but Glazer didn’t stutter.

‘Alexandria Bystroń-Kołodziejczyk, the girl who glows in the film as she did in life, chose to [resist]. I dedicate this to her memory and her resistance.’

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.