“Ambient Genocide”

Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest (2023)

(1) The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023)

“Gentlemen, in a hundred years, another film will be made in colour, showing the terrible days we must endure. Do you want to play a role in this film that will make us live again in a hundred years? … I can assure you that it will be a great film, thrilling and beautiful, worth standing firm for. Hold on!”

Joseph Goebbels, on the film Kolberg, 1945

In his excoriating review of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1960 film Kapo, the director and film critic Jacques Rivette famously argued that a commitment to realism was impossible when it came to representing a concentration camp. Any attempt to recreate its horror was, from the very start, doomed to fail because it must be “physically bearable for the spectator.” From this perspective, “any traditional approach” he wrote, “falls under voyeurism and pornography.” Rivette, who was about to became one of the leading figures of the French Nouvelle Vague, was particularly harsh with a sequence in which one of the characters commits suicide by throwing herself into electrified barbed wire. The scene climaxes with a low-angle forward tracking which serves to center the corpse in the final frame. A directorial decision that, from Rivette’s standpoint, “deserves nothing but the deepest contempt.”1 According to him, the relatively impersonal editing style of Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard offered a partial solution to this representational problem. What was crucial about Resnais’s 1956 documentary was that what mattered was not what was shown to the audience but how it was shown. A question that naturally was to find its culmination in Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Shoah and his apparent rejection of representation altogether.

Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest naturally offers its own answer to these questions. By focusing on the daily private life of the Auschwitz commander Rudolph Höss, the film explicitly displaces the camp itself off screen. As Glazer has explained, although he intended, at first, to “follow Rudolf Höss at work,” he ended up dropping the idea precisely because “it did not seem ethical to [him] to re-enact this barbarity, because we can never even come close to touching the reality.”2 On visiting the actual site where the house was built, Glazer immediately realized the potential strength of a film that would happen on the other side of the wall of the camp, where, within a few meters of Auschwitz itself, the Hösses played with their children, sunbathed near the pool, or did some gardening. The drama of Glazer’s film thus revolves around the announcement Höss received in 1943 that he was to be recalled from the Auschwitz command. This decision, as Glazer found out in the Auschwitz archives, led to an argument between Höss and his wife, who didn’t want to leave their comfortable villa and the life they had built there. “My family had it good in Auschwitz,” he recalled in his autobiography, “every wish that my wife or my children had was fulfilled.”3 The juxtaposition of a place that Hedwig Höss called her “flower paradise” and the camp itself, off screen, allows Glazer to treat the Judeocide without actually representing it. The camp only exists as a background, digitally reconstructed and appearing almost as a landscape. The result is an audacious and formally captivating film that Cahiers du Cinéma has described as a “petty-bourgeois drama in the heart of a genocide”.4

The decision to take the standpoint of the Nazis rather than the victims required however radical formal choices to ensure the audience would not feel empathy for the protagonists. Shot with small cameras fixed in and around the house, the film offers a starkly detached view of the family’s domestic life. It had to be, as the film’s cinematographer Łukasz Żal noted, “as objective as possible to witness [the Holocaust] without fetishizing or glamorizing the topic.”5 With all the cameras (and microphones) rolling at the same time and concealed from the actors, and with the crew working off-set, the result looks like a surveillance video, described by Glazer himself as “Big Brother in the Nazi house”. “I wanted”, he added, “to give the impression there is no author.”6 The effect is striking, creating a distance between the characters and an audience put in a position of almost clinical observation. We never feel close to Höss and his family, and are barely given access to their interiority. This impression is, moreover, heightened by the fact that Żal only used modern lenses and cameras to avoid any kind of “historical patina”. It is therefore clear, from the very start, that what we’re seeing is designed to appear like a kind of museum, or like a historical re-enactment. The fact that we are always facing a reconstitution – and not the thing itself – is moreover emphasized by the flash forward scenes in the actual Auschwitz Museum.7

But if Glazer didn’t film the camp, its presence still colonizes the screen through noise. “The real film”, he has often argued, “is the invisible film”.8 Johnnie Burn, the sound designer for the film, spent months reading technical details about the camp and its locations and tried to re-create as precisely as he could the “sonic world” of Auschwitz. Recordings of textile workshops, incinerators, gunshots, screams of pain or distress constitute the “second film.” Here, the dissonance experienced by the spectator is amplified by the fact that the characters don’t generally show any kind of response to the sounds by which they are surrounded. The “first” film is therefore totally independent from the “second” one, putting all the pressure of the distance between the two on the spectator who tries to make sense of the relation between both. For Glazer, this tension plays a specific function: leaving the film somehow incomplete, so that the spectator “becomes also an author [of the film].” But, by doing so, the film betrays its project of making the beholder a distant observer. It constantly compels the audience to question our own uneasiness, produced by the excessive mise-en-scène of the dissonance between sound and image. It is as if the tension had been created primarily for its effect on the viewer, rather than for the necessities of the story itself. Unlike in László Nemes’s Son of Saul, where the sound coming from the camp itself was conceived as a way to “complete the perception of the image” and “deepen the perspective of the machinery of the camp”9 , in Glazer’s approach what we hear is designed to force us questioning what we see.

The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023)

In one scene in particular, Höss is supervising the arrival of a train in the camp. The shot films him in a close low-angle shot, making the train itself invisible, and yet, very present through the smoke it releases and the deportees’ horrendous screams of panic. Children crying, mothers supplicating, gunshots and shouts by German soldiers contrast with the impassable close up of Höss’s face. The scene, breaking with the more neutral tone of the rest of the movie, creates an extreme feeling of distress. The shouts becoming here quite obviously nothing less than a “Spielberg sound,” where the audience is fully immersed in terror in the “ambient genocide,” as Glazer termed it. And by erasing Höss’s head slowly through a slow fade, leaving the audience only with a blank screen and terrifying sounds, Glazer produced the kind of dramatic effects he wanted to avoid. This scene, one of the few that happens in the camp itself (likely the Auschwitz II-Birkenau gatehouse), rather than intensifying the formal distanciation of the film, radically undermines it.

The malaise produced by the contrast between sound and image is therefore intended to compel the viewer to self-examination. “The reason I made this film,” he stated several times, “is to try to restate our close proximity to this terrible event that we think of as in the past. For me, it is not ever in the past, and right now, I think something in me is aware – and fearful – that these things are on the rise again with the growth of right-wing populism everywhere.” “All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present,” Glazer said in his Oscar speech, “not to say ‘look what they did then’ — rather, ‘look what we do now.’” But such an aim had immediate and disturbing effects on the narrative choices made. Notably, Glazer’s strong interest in the “grotesque” aspiration the Hösses display to become a bourgeois family, making them more familiar to us. The problem with films depicting Nazis as monsters, Glazer argued, was “they leave us intact, at peace with ourselves, because we can never be like them.”10

From this perspective, it is unsurprising that Glazer has admitted to having been inspired by Hannah Arendt’s ideas about the “banality of evil.”11 In her famous report for The New Yorker about the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann, Arendt had famously described Eichmann as a “déclassé” with “an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement” but who had “no motives at all.” His “lack of imagination” and his “sheer thoughtlessness” were therefore what had “predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.”12 In a piece written in 1977, Arendt specified her concept explaining Eichmann “manifest shallowness” “which made it impossible to trace the incontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level or roots or motives.”13 “There was no sign,” she added, “in him of firm ideological motives.” This is precisely how Rudolph Höss appears in the film: a vulgar careerist without a strong sense of ideology. He had to be, as Glazer noted, “occupied with activity all the time, because if you stop, you think. And, if you think, you reflect.”14 To put it differently, he is a “banal” character, mainly motivated by material gain and depicted through a familial drama to which we could all relate.

Arendt’s take on Eichmann, however, is anything but agreed upon among historians. In particular, she has been sternly criticized for her lack of engagement with actual evidence. Not only did she leave Jerusalem three days before Eichmann’s extensive testimony began, but she essentially based her conclusions on a few secondary sources. Raul Hilberg, upon whom she relied heavily, and who had published a landmark study of the Holocaust entitled The Destruction of the European Jews that very same year, didn’t hesitate to note that for some reason Arendt “did not recognize the magnitude of what [Eichmann] had done” nor did she “discern the pathways [he] had found in the thickest of the German administrative machine for his unprecedented actions”. “There was no ‘banality,’” Hilberg emphasized, “in this ‘evil.’”15 And what is true for Eichmann is also true for Höss. After experiencing a religious crisis in his youth and abandoning his project of becoming a priest, he joined volunteer nationalist paramilitary groups and participated in several political assassinations. By 1922, he took his Nazi party card and was about to become, by his own words, “a fanatic National Socialist.” “I was firmly convinced” he added “that our idea would take hold in all countries, modified by the various local customs, and would gradually become dominant. This would then break the dominance of international Jewry.”16 When he joined the SS Death’s Head Units in 1934, he was assigned to Dachau where he discovered the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” motto that he would replicate above the main entrance of Auschwitz on becoming its commander in October 1940.

His role there was crucial, radically transforming the purpose of the camp by the end of 1941, as the situation on the Eastern Front deteriorated for Germany. The whole concentration camp system was repurposed to serve the war effort against Bolshevism, with Höss supervising drastic changes that would dramatically deteriorate living conditions. To increase production and efficiency, he notably established a new triage system which immediately separated those judged “unfit” for work (who went to an instant death) from those who could be sent to work in the massive production sites built around the camp. He also supervised, to cope with the high death rate, the creation of four modern crematoriums by two private firms in order to dispose more quickly of the bodies which were piling up.  Far from being focused on his private life, Höss dedicated himself to his duty with extreme fervour. “I lived only,” he recalled, “for my work” to the point that he would later confess the deep regrets he had of not spending “more time with [his] family.”17

Rather than the ordinary family man the film depicts, Höss was an ideologically driven character, wholly dedicated to his party. The “final solution” wasn’t just the product of “thoughtless” careerists or of an abstract process of “dehumanization” as Glazer termed it, but the culmination of the total war launched by Hitler on the Eastern Front. As Arno J. Mayer argued, the extermination of the Jews truly took a serious turn by the end of 1941, with the end of the striking victories of the blitzkrieg. “The ideological and social foundations of the Nazi regime,” Mayer argued, “required that the war in the East be transformed into a fight to the death, which also involved an escalation of the pseudo-religious fury that accompanied it. From the end of 1941, the struggle against the Red Army, the ‘crusade’ against Bolshevism, and the war against the Jews, having become total, were united by a fatal bond.”18 In other words, ideology and the war of extermination in the East, are crucial to make sense of Hösses.

Of course, it is not hard to imagine why such depiction is less appealing for a filmmaker who wants us to see ourselves in the Nazis. Ideology and fanatical political commitment are precisely what make them dissimilar to us, or what make the analogy between then and now less convincing. But, by choosing to efface ideology and fanaticism, The Zone of Interest displays a woefully poor understanding of its subject. Historical analogy, as the great historian Marc Bloch once noted, cannot be reduced to a “hunt for resemblances” or satisfy itself “with forced analogies”19 but rather has the task of discovering the specificities of different historical periods. It is only through the use of analogy and disanalogy that the historian can, at the same time, seize the past and the characteristic newness of our present. The point is not then, as Samuel Moyn has recently argued in relation to comparisons between Trump and fascism, that some events are “‘incommensurable’ in the world”20 , nor is it to deny that comparison should be historiographically permissible, but rather that, by making the past look like the present, or the present like the past, we make both the past and the present impossible to read. Absent war and ideology, Glazer is forced to fall back on platitudes such as the idea that it can happen again because, “it’s in us.” Telling us the obvious truth that human beings are capable and sometimes desirous of doing horrifically bad things to each other doesn’t help us understand why they do so in different contexts. In the case of Höss, one way to show this would have been to capture how his vision of “the good life” is one defined by the social and economic ambitions of a bourgeoisie that, in Hitler’s terms, saw itself increasingly endangered by the “Jewish-Marxist objectives” of the Soviet Union, the “greatest servant of Jewry.” In other words, a reading of the Hoss family not only in terms of a drive for upward mobility and class revanchism but as the embodiments of normalcy for an ideology that identified a conflation of  the Communist and the Jew as its greatest enemy. So, despite the impressive archival work done by Glazer and his team when it comes to details of the house or the recreation of the sounds, the film displays an impoverished understanding of what precipitated the Holocaust while leaving us clueless about how to grasp the challenges of our present.


To portray the Holocaust, Claude Lanzmann once told Raul Hilberg, “one has to create a work of art.”21 This meant, in his view, a work made for no other purpose than itself, devoid of, as he put it, “the intention of striking at the heart” of the beholder. In other words, the exact opposite of the sentimentality of Schindler’s List. What mattered was therefore the unity of the work and its absolute refusal of dramatization. Lanzmann, as he often repeated, never intended to educate his audience or launch a political battle against the Holocaust deniers who were becoming more vocal in France by the mid-eighties. The formal decisions and the film’s structure had to follow their own rules, and were not subjected to external imperatives. And this is perhaps what is lacking in Glazer’s brilliant failure. While making original and innovative formal choices, he seems unable to reconcile two opposing aims: his commitment against dramatization and his willingness to provoke the spectator. If the film succeeds in creating distance between its audience and its protagonists through the innovative use of hidden-cameras and museum-like sets, it also undermines this very commitment by relying on the contrast between sound and image for the sole purpose of troubling its audience. His film, in other words, seems divided between its politics and its aesthetics, the latter mostly losing to the former.

The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023)

  • 1Jacques Rivette, “De l’abjection,” Cahiers du Cinéma 123 (September 1961); author’s translation.
  • 2Pierre Charpillot and Antoine Desrues, “Interview : les nazis sont toujours dépeints au cinéma comme des monstres,” Sofilm 101 (January-February 2024): 72.
  • 3Rudolph Höss, Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1996), 164.
  • 4“La parole et les cris. Table ronde sur La Zone d’intérêt ,” Cahiers du Cinéma 808 (April 2024): 12.
  • 5John Boone, “The Context Is Everything': Behind the Sights and Sound of 'The Zone of Interest',” A.Frame, March 11, 2024.
  • 6Charpillot and Desrues, “Interview : les nazis sont toujours dépeints au cinéma comme des monstres,” 75.
  • 7On the Holocaust and representation listen to Guillaume Orignac on the Sortie de Secours podcast.
  • 8Charpillot and Desrues, “Interview : les nazis sont toujours dépeints au cinéma comme des monstres,” 73.
  • 9Amir Ganjavie, “The Reality of Death: An Interview with László Nemes about ‘Son of Saul’,” MUBI Notebook, July 7, 2015.
  • 10Charpillot and Desrues, “Interview : les nazis sont toujours dépeints au cinéma comme des monstres,” 74.
  • 11Jonathan Glazer on his Holocaust film The Zone of Interest,” The Guardian, December 10, 2023.
  • 12Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: The Viking Press, 1963), 287.
  • 13annah Arendt, “Thinking-I,” The New Yorker, November 21, 1977, 65.
  • 14Jonathan Glazer on his Holocaust film The Zone of Interest.”
  • 15Raul Hilberg, The Politics of Memory. The Journey of a Holocaust Historian (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996), 150.
  • 16Höss, Death Dealer, 141.
  • 17Höss, Death Dealer, 164.
  • 18Arno J. Mayer, Why Did The Heavens Not Darken? (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988),  510.
  • 19Marc Bloch, “Pour une histoire comparée des sociétés européennes,” Revue de synthèse historique (1928): 31.
  • 20amuel Moyn, “The Trouble with Comparisons,” The New York Review of Books, May 19, 2021.
  • 21Raul Hilberg, The Politics of Memory, 83.

Images from The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023)

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.