Fiona Herzog: The Zone of Interest by writer–director Jonathan Glazer deprives all that the audience expects to see in a film about Auschwitz. Instead, it delivers chilling implications on the role of guilt, responsibility, and ignorance when making decisions.

Visual horror as a tool is inextricably linked to depiction of Nazis’ inhumanity: Images of emaciated bodies, slave labor and executions washed in colors of gray, brown, and red have become synonymous with Holocaust representation and characterization. However, The Zone of Interest operates on an entirely different premise: Lush greens, overexposed pastels, and blissful summer parties fill the runtime and the forefront of the shots. Why does Glazer construct the stark contrast, and how does it affect your emotion during the film?

Bea Hammam: The Zone of Interest is not like other Holocaust films—and it does not want to be. Instead of dull color palettes, The Zone of Interest strangely utilizes bright colors that are reminiscent of a beautiful summer day. The typical Holocaust movies use dull colors, and often rely on a fetishization of violence to gain audience attention. Sometimes, violence against Jewish people is used simply as a tool to draw in the audiences and force them to watch. However, they often do not delve deeper into the psychology or realities of the Holocaust. They use dull colors to indicate sadness and wartime, yet they reductively equate Nazis as evil without critical examination.

The Zone of Interest centers around a Nazi family that shares a wall with the Auschwitz camp. Its color palette creates a chilling contrast: The characters in the film build a beautiful hyper–saturated garden in their beautiful colorful home, three steps away from Auschwitz. Glazer presents us with an eye that observes, rather than makes judgments for the audience.

Something sinister lies beneath the beautiful visuals. Glazer isn't trying to be sympathetic to the Höss family. The visuals serve to add to the audience's sense of injustice that this Nazi family can live in denial and create their most idyllic life. At the same time, in the background are the typical grays and dulled–down tones of the Auschwitz camp. The audience is left to wonder: How can a garden so beautiful coexist next to the most atrocious and ugly place in history? 

The visuals of the film are in direct conflict with the content, emphasizing the dissonance in the characters. I am stunned visually, in a way that all good cinematography leaves me jaw–dropped. Glazer, in a press release, states that he “didn’t want to glamorize, which is what cinema can do; that’s too easily its language.” This film is beautiful. However, unlike a Wes Anderson movie, it does not feel right. Instead of a romanticization, the colorful nature of The Zone of Interest calls call attention to the horrific irony in trying to live an idyllic life based on mass genocide. 

To look beyond the visuals, we see denial as a key aspect in the perpetuation of the Nazi regime throughout the film. The mother of the house, for example, intentionally uses overgrown vines to shield her home from the ugliness and horror of Auschwitz. Do you feel like this theme translates to the modern audiences? Why now to produce this film? 

FH: In The Zone of Interest, no excuse of ignorance or blind belief is given to every Nazi who upheld the system that allowed for the Holocaust to happen. For instance, Höss understands the immorality of his actions; When he sees evidence of human remains in the river, he hurriedly drives his children out of the river to shield them from the reality outside their home. Yet, he continues accepting promotions and conducting further gassing operations with little mental difficulty. Eventually, he even comes to the point where he is able to plainly tell his wife how thoughts of gassing have seeped into his mind in settings without Jewish people. 

Furthermore, the repercussions of his actions extend to those that could make no conscious decisions and are innocent by virtue of their age—his children. For instance, his older son locks his younger brother in the family greenhouse. Then, he mimics the hissing of the gas chamber as the younger boy struggles to get out. Constantly exposed to the horrendous acts around them, they have absorbed the malice that commands their father’s decisions.

Höss’ dry–heaving in the final scene indicates consequences of conscious evil actions must not be forgotten. I interpret one of the reasons for his dry–heaving being the soot and smoke from the constant operations of Auschwitz percolating into his lungs. In the scene, Höss attempts to retch over and over, yet nothing comes up, as there is no way to remove himself from his crimes. Ultimately he is trapped with the effects of his evilness entrenched in his mind and body. No matter how much he may try, he will never be able to deny himself responsibility for his actions. 

Due to social media, we are more easily exposed to injustice. While increased exposure could indicate more proactive actions against injustice from us, it also comes with an increased potential in dulling the shock and horror by its saturation. The Zone of Interest provides an important reminder to audiences just how much luxury there is in enjoying peace. 

In addition to the stark change in color, The Zone of Interest also features meticulous sound design. Without any Jewish characters for the audience to relate to, the sound of their horrifying experiences can potentially become a character in of itself, and the audience is filled with tension at each scream and gunshot. Can you elaborate more on how the film’s using sound as a method to tether itself to the audience emotionally?

BH: Show not tell is the quintessential piece of advice for filmmakers, and Glazer gives us a masterclass. The power of The Zone of Interest lies not in what is seen, but in what is heard. Sound design in this film acts as a character, representing the voices of those in the concentration camps. 

Underlying the idyllic countryside life is the sounds of gunshots, violence, and death. This is all the more captivating as the Höss household is peaceful and quiet. We are essentially experiencing things as the Höss family does; while Rudolf has direct interaction with the camps, his family do not. They build a wall and do everything in their power to ignore what is happening, and the only thing they are left with is the sound. The horrific regime that the Höss family perpetuates is not directly depicted: They try to co–exist and share a wall with Auschwitz, while ignoring what their lives are built on. But it is impossible to ignore the sounds beyond the wall.

There is something more powerful in choosing not to directly show Auschwitz, but allowing the audience to extrapolate what is happening in the background. In tandem with the color scheme, Glazer depicts the character psychology of the Höss family audio–visually.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film takes place in the Höss family garden. Beautiful close–ups of plants and flowers are overlapped with a crescendo of horrified screams, eventually building up to a final blackout where the audience is left with only terrifying sounds. The beautiful images gradually yield to the shocking realities, suggesting how evil can be so easily veiled. 

In effect, Glazer lets the audience ask themselves about how the characters can turn a blind eye to such cruelty; We hear it, become fixated upon it, and feel incredibly uncomfortable.

Finally, The Zone of Interest emphasizes the deeply antisemitic ideal of cleanliness. One of the most striking scenes is the children being vigorously cleaned in the bathtub after getting soot on them from the death camp. However, at the end of the film we get a glimpse into how painstakingly the Auschwitz–Birkenau Museum is cleaned as a way to preserve memories. Can you tell me a bit more about the role the theme cleanliness plays in the film, and what preservation means to you?

FH: Racial purity and cleanliness were pillars to Nazi ideology, in spite of the many contradictions embedded within. As a response to the falling birth rate in the 1920s and 1930s compounded by mass death due to World War I, ideology of producing a fit German population infiltrated the government, medical teachings, and practices. The result was that by 1945, about 400,000 Germans were forcibly sterilized due to schizophrenia, genetic blindness, chronic alcoholism, and more. With the start of World War II, this procedure changed to efficient mass murder. Propaganda of the perfect Aryan race flooded the streets, in spite of Hitler’s less–than–pure genetic pool. Certainly, his brown hair and brown eyes didn’t align with the Aryan purity propaganda that saturated Nazi–controlled media. 

This ideology is present in The Zone of Interest with a myriad of visual cues. The German family uses Jewish labor to maintain their house and image. Therefore, despite the insistence that Jewish people are so devalued that they only deserve to die en masse just outside the house walls, the clean appearance of the Höss family is also dependent on Jewish people. Despite the family building and decorating their walls to remove Jewish people from their sight, true purity can not be maintained. Throughout the film, cleanliness is used to erase horrors and uphold flawed Nazi ideology.

However, in one of the most impactful scenes at the end, the Auschwitz–Birkenau Museum is cleaned meticulously to preserve the horrific nature of the Holocaust. It shows piles of belongings of the people that were gassed. Now, through maintenance, cleaning and preservation, we ensure that the Holocaust is not lost to history. Through the dichotomy of cleanliness as a theme between these two scenes, the film proves that in spite of the decisions during the Holocaust, we still have the power to prevent further atrocities. 

Through poignant and highly stylized filmmaking, The Zone of Interest serves as a powerful reminder that people can very easily commit atrocities to preserve their lifestyle. We must not stay complacent and accept these horrors as facts of the past, but rather use these horrors to actively prevent further crimes against humanity.