Viewing the Ob-scene: On Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest”

By David HeringMarch 4, 2024

Viewing the Ob-scene: On Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest”
A MAN IS being murdered outside a child’s window. A prisoner of Auschwitz, he was caught fighting with another captive. As punishment, he’s being drowned in a river. We can’t see the incident, but the child can. He moves over to the window and looks out beyond our field of vision. Almost immediately, he withdraws back into the room, and utters a gnomic phrase: “Don’t do that again.”

To viewers watching this scene, it’s unclear to whom this is directed: to the prisoners, to the toy soldiers with which the boy has been playing, or to himself. If it’s the prisoners, he has inculcated the values of the murderers who live in his house; he is the son of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, whose home lies on the other side of the camp wall. If it’s the toys, his revulsion at the murder has been redirected to miniature avatars of those outside his window. Most likely, he is talking to himself, and the thing he must not do again is look at what’s happening next door. Better to stay indoors, on the other side of the wall, and withdraw into the make-believe narrative of his toys. The window, as so often occurs in The Zone of Interest (2023), the film from which this scene is taken, is a blinding white square covered by a gauzy curtain. Something awful we cannot see is happening, just out of sight.

The Zone of Interest focuses on the everyday lives of the Höss family. We never see what happens inside Auschwitz, which appears only as a backdrop. Its towers loom above the concrete garden wall, the smoke from its chimneys spreads upwards into the sky, and human bones are washed downstream into the nearby river. We hear sounds of gunfire, screams, barked orders, and machinery, all of which play out over the Höss family’s domestic lives. Each day, Rudolf Höss leaves his house, murders countless prisoners, and comes home to read his children a bedtime story. There’s a word we might use for this juxtaposition of the domestic idyll and the death camp: “obscene.” But the word captures more than the camp’s utter depravity. It derives from the Greek, “ob-skeen,” which means offstage or out of sight, and Glazer’s film relies as a structural principle on a strict division between what is on- and off-screen. There is no on-screen act of violence in the film. Instead, its mise-en-scène is suffused with the horror of the systematic genocide taking place just out of sight, and Glazer uses the dramatic language of the “ob-skeen” to view the Holocaust—a historical obscenity whose visual depiction has been fraught with difficulty—from a new position, one in which viewers are unavoidably enmeshed.

The titular zone, in the 2014 Martin Amis novel that Glazer adapted, is a space that incorporates the Höss residence and the death camp. However, as with his 2013 adaptation of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (2000), Glazer has reworked the source material into something only tangentially similar. The film, most of which takes place in the Höss house, is viewed in mid and wide shots, and the focus on interpersonal relationships in Amis’s novel is abandoned in favor of a surveillance aesthetic. During filming, Glazer covered the house set with cameras, Big Brother–style, some hidden, some visible in every room. The actors moved around the house, aware they were being filmed but not which cameras were filming them. As a consequence, viewers feel as if they’re watching secretly. While the events taking place in the death camp are obscured from view, the house and garden are subjected contrapuntally to a radical visibility—everything the family does is on show, the very opposite of “ob-skeen,” hyper-visible.

Glazer originally trained in theater design, but despite his stated dislike of films that simply stage drama, theater-like, in front of the viewer, the mise-en-scène of The Zone of Interest insists upon the formal idea of the stage, with Glazer calling the house an “arena.” The film is not stagy; rather, it’s acutely aware of the limits of its frame, and of the tension that derives from our awareness of what lies beyond it. Take the Hösses’ garden, a well-kept area directly next to the death-camp wall. The obsessive planting and cultivation of the space has a sickening counterpart in the unseen ethnic cleansing yards away; an early sequence has Rudolf Höss looking over plans for a circular incineration chamber, whose carefully delineated areas recall visually the garden’s layout.

The Höss house and the death camp participate in a larger dynamic of putative cultivation. The film is well aware, to recall Walter Benjamin, that “[t]here is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” But it resorts to a curious formal literalism when delineating its so-called civilized and barbaric spaces, one which becomes bound up with the psychological well-being of the Hösses, and the form of the film itself. When Höss is summoned back to Germany in the second half of the film for possible relocation, we find ourselves transported from a scene of mass murder to the scene where that murder is planned. Despite the acclaim that greets him, Höss appears uncomfortable in Germany, and his wife, Hedwig, who lives unfazed alongside genocide, is distraught at the prospect of leaving her house and garden. The closer Rudolf Höss gets to the original scene of the Holocaust’s conception, the weaker he gets physically. He sees a doctor for an unspecified medical problem; he stumbles around retching; he sits alone in his room. It’s as if the stability of the Hösses is reliant on the scrupulous maintenance of their home in Poland. At times, the form of the film itself can appear on the verge of collapse when its scenic integrity is under threat. As Hedwig Höss tends to her well-kept garden, a shot of a flower—one of the film’s few close-ups—is suffused suddenly with the color red, which obscures the entire screen. The sounds of murder and terror from behind the wall increase, and Mica Levi’s soundtrack judders abruptly in and out, as if coming in on the wrong cue. It’s as if someone has put the film in the wrong gear, and we can hear the grinding of the mechanism as it tries to reassert itself. Sure enough, a few seconds later, the original mis-en-scène abruptly returns.

Glazer’s use of the obscene here occurs within a broader question of what one should or shouldn’t show when depicting this particular historical moment. Concerns about dramatizing the Holocaust on film have regularly come up against at least two objections. Firstly, that no dramatization can do justice to the scale of industrialized mass murder, and secondly, that to use the tools of cinema to dramatize Nazi genocide is to become implicated in the cinematic propaganda that was, of course, a key tool of those who propagated that genocide. Should these films embrace a therapeutic humanism, as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) does? Should they assiduously avoid the dramatic in favor of spoken testimony, as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) does? Juxtapose contemporary documentary footage and wartime images, as with Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), or more recently Steve McQueen’s Occupied City (2023)? Or go beyond the camp wall, but keep most of the horrors around the protagonist out of focus, as in László Nemes’s Son of Saul (2015)?

Critics of Holocaust films often cite Theodor Adorno’s admonition that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. But after watching Glazer’s film, I’ve been thinking about his later reconsideration of that statement:

[I]t may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz [one] can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz.

The Zone of Interest adopts this position, specifically Adorno’s alignment of “bourgeois subjectivity” with both the perpetrators of Auschwitz and the position from which one moves on from it, looks back on it, views it. One of the most troubling elements of Glazer’s film is that the viewer is not allowed to withdraw from the film’s radically circumscribed scene. Much of what disturbs us in the film comes from our preexisting knowledge of the Holocaust, with which we fill in the information that takes place out of shot. We can imagine the death camps because we have already seen what happened inside them. But The Zone of Interest follows Adorno’s line further. It makes bourgeois subjectivity, which elides both survivors and perpetrators, the necessary frame from which “we” view the film itself. What a horrible prospect, this indivisible position. And it’s this horror that suffuses so much of the film, the idea that the bourgeois cultivation of the scene, and the unspeakable ob-scene, are somehow inextricable, one the obverse of the other, with the viewer the bloody thread that connects them.

I was struck by this sense of indivisibility during two scenes that take place at night, depicting a young Polish girl, a neighbor of the Hösses, discreetly leaving food for the prisoners by secreting apples in the trenches where they labor during the day. These scenes are shot without lighting and in infrared, so the girl’s body appears as white against the sheer black of her surroundings. It’s a startling, uncanny reversal of the daytime scenes, and the only act of compassion we witness in the film, which must necessarily take place out of sight. It’s hard here not to be reminded of the famous scene in Schindler’s List in which Schindler sees a young child visually distinguished from a crowd of people, her red coat the only color in an otherwise black-and-white scene. We learn nothing about the child as a person, but this is the point. She could be anyone and stands for everyone. In Spielberg’s film, the gesture is fundamentally humanistic. By isolating one individual through the subjectivity of the film’s “hero” as he views the scene, Schindler’s List centers a viewer’s understanding of common humanity, one fulfilled dramatically by a moment of human success: Schindler’s climactic rescue of Jews from the death camps. Aligned with Schindler’s vision, viewers ally themselves with humanist action: I view like him, and I would do as he does. With The Zone of Interest, we’re not permitted this position. As the illuminated girl plants apples equal distances apart in the dirt, we realize what we’re viewing is an inversion of the planting of Hedwig’s garden. One scene is the twin of the other. The implication in these matched, intertwined gestures—that good and evil are qualities of which any human is, in the right circumstances, capable—is considerably more discomfiting than Spielberg’s assumption of the viewer’s separation from the atrocities taking place on-screen.

These night sequences are made more discordant by the soundtrack that plays under them. The film has no music other than at the opening and closing credits, but during these infrared scenes, the action is accompanied by a loud guttural sound, almost like a belch but deeper and less identifiably human. Watching these scenes, I felt as if I was hearing some vast repressed thing erupting, pushing up and out and into the world of the film. It’s a deliberately incongruous noise, clearly not coming from anything on-screen. It’s messy and untidy; it’s at odds with the scrupulousness of the mise-en-scène, and it appears when things oppose or undercut Höss’s vision. Later, these noises, which initially accompany only the night-vision scenes, increase in frequency and recur when a clearly uncomfortable Höss is in Germany. He’s examined by a doctor, and their dialogue suggests that his problem is digestive, that something is not breaking down properly, is threatening to explode out of Höss’s body. It feels as if the film is moving not toward resolution but cataclysm, eruption, and breakdown.

Sure enough, in the final sequence of Zone, this tension cracks the film open. Höss, drunk and stumbling out of a party, walks down a stairwell. When he reaches a landing, he starts to physically retch, but doesn’t vomit. He walks down another set of stairs to an identical landing, and dry-retches again. He looks down the corridor and sees a tiny point of light in the darkness. A door opens, flooding the room with light; we’re in Auschwitz, 2023. For 10 minutes, we see workers entering and cleaning the museum that now stands on the site of the camp. The effect is startling, uncanny. That tiny point of light is a portal through which we see the future, a scene out of time. This breakdown of time and space is the eruption that’s been coming, and for the first time, we find ourselves on the other side of the camp wall. We view this scene through a different mode: documentary. The sequences in the museum play out in long fixed takes. We see the ovens being cleaned, the gas chambers being swept, piles of clothes and shoes from dead prisoners, and a corridor lined with photographs of those murdered in the camps. What has been concealed from us, the ob-scene, is now visible. The cleaning and cultivation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum creates a new scene, one of remembrance and testimony, in which the lives of those millions murdered are brought into sight.

Is this abrupt shift to documentary an admission of the failure of Zone’s dramatic form? No, because the juxtaposition is the point, and in these final moments Glazer opens and extends the scene of Zone to something larger: the visual representation of other historical scenes of mass murder (“It’s about now,” he said of the film in a recent interview at the British Film Institute). This climactic breakdown recalls the endings of two recent films, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), in which a final change of viewing position, a bringing-into-view of something previously unseen, is revelatory to an understanding of an atrocity. Folman’s animated film ends with the simultaneous realization by Folman of his complicity in the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, and the removal of the film’s animation filter to show real, uncensored footage of the killing. Oppenheimer’s film ends with war criminal Anwar Congo watching a reenactment of tortures he himself carried out, only now he plays the torture victim. Viewing, Congo appears to undergo a moment of realization, and—exactly like Höss in Glazer’s film—repeatedly retches but is unable to vomit. In these formal shifts, these films acknowledge that the obscenity of the act of mass killing can only be fully rendered through a hybridized way of seeing, one in which the documentary form catalyzes a clarity of vision. What’s unsettling about the end of Glazer’s film, though, is the continuation of that entwining of those preceding acts of cultivation, of staging and scene creation, from atrocity to act of kindness to memorial. The viewer isn’t allowed to step outside of this entanglement. Instead, the film asks, against the abominations of the contemporary world, what do we bring into view and what do we push out of sight? What scene would we make? What scene are we making right now?

But The Zone of Interest doesn’t end there. Instead, it cuts back to Höss, staring down the corridor toward the camera, before he turns and walks down the stairwell into total darkness. It’s impossible to read Höss’s reaction—whether he sees and doesn’t care, or whether he attains some understanding of his actions, of what has erupted into his vision. Ultimately, though, what we witness is Höss leaving the scene. His disappearance into darkness prefigures his infamy and execution, while the lives of his victims are illuminated with ever more clarity. And we watch, implicated. The credits roll, over darkness.

LARB Contributor

David Hering is a critic, novelist and senior lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. His writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, Guernica, The Point, The London Magazine, and others. He is currently writing a book on haunting in contemporary culture.


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