The visible and the invisible

… [The trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem offered] … the most striking insight into the totality of the moral collapse the Nazis caused in respectable European society – not only in Germany but in almost all countries, not only among the persecutors but also among the victims. Eichmann, in contrast to other elements in the Nazi movement, had always been overawed by “good society,” and the politeness he often showed to German-speaking Jewish functionaries was to a large extent the result of his recognition that he was dealing with people who were socially his superiors. He was not at all, as one witness called him, a “Landsknechtnatur,” a mercenary, who wanted to escape to regions where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst. What he fervently believed in up to the end was success, the chief standard of “good society” as he knew it. Typical was his last word on the subject of Hitler – whom he and his comrade Sassen had agreed to “shirr out” of their story; Hitler, he said, “may have been wrong all down the line, but one thing is beyond dispute: the man was able to work his way up from lance corporal in the German Army to Führer of a people of almost eighty million. . . . His success alone proved to me that I should subordinate myself to this man.” His conscience was indeed set at rest when he saw the zeal and eagerness with which “good society” everywhere reacted as he did. He did not need to “close his ears to the voice of conscience,” as the judgment has it, not because he had none, but because his conscience spoke with a “respectable voice,” with the voice of respectable society around him.

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

From lundimatin, #415, 12/02/2024 …

Reflections on Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest

Alain Parrau

From The Last Stage, the very first fiction on Auschwitz filmed in 1947 in the camp itself by Wanda Jakubowska,[1] to Son of Saul by László Nemes in 2015, and The Conference by Matti Geschonneck in 2023, cinema has never ceased to confront the event of the camps and the genocide, to construct and disseminate images of a reality largely deprived of images.[2] Ignoring the prohibition based on the metaphysical motif of the unrepresentable, of which Claude Lanzmann had become the vigilant guardian, many directors have deliberately chosen to respond to a desire to see, a desire whose problematic nature, and the questions it raises, lie at the heart of any reflection on the relationship between cinema and history.

The way Jonathan Glazer’s film provokes and organises this desire to see, the way he directs it and tests it, is at the heart of the director’s aesthetic, as well as his ethical and political choices. We must therefore describe as accurately as possible what this film shows, the cinematographic techniques it uses, and at the same time question the act of seeing, what this act entails in terms of our relationship to knowledge and imagination, on the risks it bears. The Zone of Interest, fundamentally, allows us to ask this essential question: under what conditions seeing can help us to better know our history?

Displacement of the gaze

Jonathan Glazer chose to reconstruct the family life of Rudolf Höss, commander of the “zone of interest” of Auschwitz,[3] at the very places where this life took place: the villa which adjoins the main camp (Auschwitz I). While most fiction films are mainly interested in the victims, transforming them into “characters” of a drama that they neither understand the meaning of nor how it unfolds[4] (with all the risks that this dramatisation entails: identification, heroisation, political or patriotic manipulations, spectacular effects), such a shift in the gaze brings with it a series of new questions for the spectator: what types of men were the organisers of the mass crimes? How did they perceive their “work”, according to what values and what convictions? How did they reconcile the monstrous nature of their activity with their concern for social success, respectability, marital and family normality? If Jonathan Glazer’s film allows us to ask these questions, to which historians have tried to answer in numerous works,[5] it is because, convinced that to understand mass crimes we must first be interested in those who organise them, he escapes the risk of the seduction of the executioner.[6] The choice of fixed shots, the refusal of close-ups (and the temptation of expressiveness which results from them) in favour of “American shots” [medium long shots], establishes in fact a permanent distance between the character and the spectator, to whom it is never suggested that they could enter the inner life of Rudolf Höss. The filming apparatus made up of ten fixed cameras, inside and outside the villa, allows a behavioural description of the character, with the almost total exclusion of any subjective mark, of any emotion – with the exception of a few fleeting signs: his affection for his children, to whom he reads in the evening, his love for his horse, his disappointment when he learns that he is transferred to Oranienburg, his satisfaction when he is recalled to Auschwitz. This “neutrality” of the camera avoids the risk of an ambiguous, false proximity between the spectator and the character, of a sensitive immersion in his daily world. Refusal of an aesthetic of shock, of emotion, which would play on the power of the image, in favour of an aesthetic close to Brechtian “distancing”, which wants to make the spectator think rather than astonish him.[7] The “seduction of the executioner” is based on a minimal emotional empathy of the spectator with the character they see on the screen: by denying this empathy, Jonathan Glazer’s film leaves the spectator free to think based on what they see, rather than being thought by what he sees. From this point of view, it comes seemingly close to being a document, and almost seems to want, at times, to abolish itself as fiction to deliver, fantastically, the “documentary” power of the images it offers[8] – and at the same time it undoes, several times, through different processes (the screen, black for several minutes, at the beginning and end of the film; or it becomes completely red at another moment; the black and white special effects which create a dreamlike atmosphere; the strongly contrasting colours), the “realistic” illusion that it itself provoked. The spectator’s gaze, their desire to see, is thus divided: between documentary and fiction, real and imaginary, they must accept the hesitation on which the film is built and seek their balance. The Zone of Interest, while being remarkably controlled, never ceases to raise the question of the power of images, to worry about their fragility, their equivocal significance, with regard to the event to which the film wishes to bear witness. This does not close itself on the certainty that fiction can seize the past and offer a “perfect” equivalent, thanks to which seeing and knowing would agree seamlessly. By exhibiting some of its filmic processes, it establishes distance; it prevents the gaze from being satisfied with what it sees.

Seeing and not seeing

The construction of space and the distribution of gazes, of the possibilities of seeing and not seeing, plays an essential role in the film. The separation between the domestic space, that of the villa and its garden, and the camp space, delimited by the enclosure (wall and barbed wire), organises the entire field of the visible. The spectator’s gaze will never cross this enclosure, it will never enter “into” the camp (but it will see, in the distance, the flames of the crematorium). The separation functions as a prohibition, an impossibility for which the soundtrack will partly compensate: the barking of dogs, the cries of prisoners and guards, the muffled noise which could be that of the gas chamber; all of these let the spectator imagine this happening on the other side of the wall. Everything visible in the film will be oriented, constructed, defined by the presence of this invisible which makes it possible and haunts it, prevents it from closing in on itself. An off-camera which never ceases to contaminate appearances, to exhibit its fundamental lie, through a whole series of signs and objects which break into everyday life: the fur coat that Madame Höss tries on in front of her mirror, the diamond found in a tube of toothpaste, the ashes used by the gardener or the teeth with which children play, signal the emergence of a truth which denounces any pretension to innocence or normality.

However, it is on such a pretension that the commander’s wife, Hedwig Höss, (masterfully played by Sandra Hüller) has built her social and family life. Proud of her status, surrounded by gardeners and servants (Polish prisoners), she, who refers to herself with a touch of humour as “the queen of Auschwitz”, directs the daily life of the villa with a firm hand. This house with multiple rooms, with windows overlooking the main camp, where the staff, the children, Madame Höss and her friends, her husband after work, industrialists who come to present their latest model of a crematorium, circulate; this elegant villa constantly open onto the exterior and onto the flower garden (it is summer) distributes spaces which continually clash visually with the camp fence. The house itself seems surrounded by what (but also with what) it was built against, by what its occupants would like not to see. The camp enclosure materialises this possibility of not seeing and, at the same time, the impossibility of not seeing anything.

The topography of the place is essential here: the garden, in particular, deserves attention. Firstly because it is irrefutable proof that, as Hedwig Höss says, she and her family live in a true “paradise”. A sign of social success, the garden, its flowers and its plants, lovingly cultivated, embodies the stereotypical image of a petty-bourgeois “happiness” based in reality on mass murder. But for this happiness to be truly complete, without stain and without worry, this foundation must be denied: the problem being that the enclosure of the camp is at the same time that of the garden. The denial then involves a camouflage operation: Madame Höss decides to grow vines on this enclosure. The decision of the commander’s wife takes on a paradigmatic value here, if we remember the importance, in the implementation of the genocide, of all the operations aimed at preventing testimony, prohibiting seeing, disguising reality.[9] If Hedwig Höss takes advantage without hesitation of all the advantages that her position gives her, if her complicity in the crime poses no problem for her conscience, she nevertheless never enters the camp;[10] she avoids seeing what she could see. This avoidance, of course, protects her from an unbearable truth. What she sees in the domestic universe that she governs, the social pleasure of being seen and recognised as a “successful” woman, the villa and the garden as places of exchange of views united by the same values, the same convictions (that of anti-Semitism for example), these spaces of conviviality where the feeling of peaceful happiness flourishes, this whole universe made of light and clarity must constantly defend itself against the threat hidden behind the enclosure of the camp. Whereas Rudolf Höss moves freely from one space to another, sees the invisible with the composure of the one who organises its deployment, according to rules and forms that he chooses, in accordance with the orders that he receives from Himmler. His omnipotent gaze dissolves the invisible that haunts the visible world of his wife; this look does not change from one place to another, it establishes a continuity between the two spaces, that of the villa and that of the camp, whose necessary complicity is familiar to him, because it is constitutive of his world.

While Madame Höss settles into the illusion that it is possible to radically separate the villa and the camp, to build a family and social life on this separation, her husband testifies to the impossibility of such a separation. The couple is thus based on this implicit pact: Rudolf Höss will never speak about what he sees; Hedwig Höss will only speak about what she sees.

To see, to know, to imagine

The spectator sees this construction of space and this distribution of gazes. They enter the villa, follow the characters from one room to another, go out with them into the garden, into the surrounding countryside, by the river. They hear their conversations: that of Mrs. Höss with her friends, her mother, her husband, her children and her servants. But what they see, they see from what they know, and imagine: this house, this sunny garden, these family meals, they know that it is only a decor, a makeup that masks the reality of industrial murder. They know where Madame Höss’s coat comes from; Mrs. Höss knows it too, but she does not want to see what she knows. The bits of knowledge she has at her disposal are embedded in her like bits of truth that will never reach the status of visible images and recognised as such. Living, for her, supposes a continuous effort to ensure that her consciousness coexists with the little truth that it supports, provided that this truth remains hidden. Indeed, was not such a choice that of a large part of German society under Nazism, the very principle of its complicity with mass murders?

Rudolf Höss is the repository of considerable knowledge: placed at the heart of the genocidal enterprise, he knows its stages, the objectives; he masters its progress and complexity. His skills and his professional commitment made him a remarkable “bureaucrat of extermination”[11]: the exchanges between officials and senior Nazi dignitaries, the meetings shown in the film (in particular the one where the deportation and extermination of Hungarian Jews were decided upon[12]), testify to his effectiveness. His lack of emotion, his “coldness” in the face of the task entrusted to him, recall this basic principle of the functioning of modern bureaucracies: feelings must not disrupt organisational activity. In an exemplary scene from the film, we see him in the evening, in his garden, smoking a cigar, the concentrated look of a man preoccupied with his work. This smooth, serious face is that of the “banality of evil”, that of the ordinary man, neither fanatic nor perverse, who loves his family, who has internalised the genocide as a historical necessity, on which the salvation of the German people depends. If the film rightly emphasises this dimension of the character, its chronological limits make it ignore the fact that Rudolf Höss, far from being a simple technician of mass murder, was a convinced Nazi, a “political soldier” who had proven himself before the war in Dachau and Sachsenhausen, a camp in which he himself carried out executions.

By refusing any image of horror, any reconstruction of mass murder, The Zone of Interest diverts the viewer’s gaze from the problem of the unimaginable and the unrepresentable. The film offers us other images: those of an ordinary couple and family, of a banal life punctuated by simple pleasures (picnics, horseback riding, garden work). These images can easily be “recognised”: they are the images of the “normal” world, of our world, the one whose tangible evidence we experience every day, which envelop us in their reassuring familiarity. But what the film shows is the coexistence of this world with that of terror. And what it asks us to think about is the meaning of this coexistence. We saw how the field of the visible was constructed against the background of a threatening off-screen, how the images took on substance from an imagination which never ceases to subject the visible to the test of its power. Power of the image, power of the imagination: the film settles, and installs us, in this in-between, which is also the one which connects, in the very movement which would like to separate them, the “normal” and the “abnormal”, the familiar and the frightening, the banal and the terrible. The images from The Zone of Interest show us this link, in the detail of its articulations. They already contain, in themselves, a thought of this link, which makes them two sides of the same historical phenomenon: there is no mass crime which does not involve an entire society; there is no possible innocence in a regime like that of the Third Reich. From these thought-images, the imagination can then arouse a desire for knowledge that goes beyond the strict framework of a film; a knowledge that is built not against images, but with images.

Alain Parrau

[1] Distributed in nearly fifty countries, the film enjoyed considerable success in France, which contrasts with the almost total oblivion into which it has fallen today. Wanda Jakubowska was herself deported to Auschwitz. See the excellent article by Stéphane Bou in the Revue d’histoire de la Shoah, 2011/2, available online, which recalls the importance of several fiction films devoted to the camps, filmed Eastern Europe between 1947 and 1949.

[2] This virtual absence of images concerns above all the killing in the gas chambers, because the liberation of the concentration camps was widely documented by journalists from the allied armies. There are only four photographs, taken clandestinely by a member of the Sonderkommando in August 1944, which bear witness to the gassings in the Birkenau installations. Cf. Georges Didi-Huberman, Images malgré tout, Minuit, 2003.

[3] The Nazis grouped under this term the main camp (Auschwitz I), the Birkenau camp (Auschwitz II), the Monowitz camp (Auschwitz III), and all of the industrial sites established there.

[4] Which actually corresponds to the situation of detainees in the camps, according to Primo Levi: “In short, … [the deportee] … felt overwhelmed by an enormous edifice of violence and menace but could not form for himself a representation of it because his eyes were fastened to the ground by every single minute’s needs.” (The Drowned and the Saved, London: Michael Joseph, London, 1988, p. 6.)

[5] See, for example, Christian Ingrao’s work, Croire et Détruireles intellectuels dans la machine de guerre SS, Fayard, 2010.

[6] According to the title of Charlotte Lacoste’s book, Séductions du bourreau, PUF, 2010, in which the author denounces the aestheticization of the figure of the executioner in several books and films, which results in a real “negation of the victims”.

[7] “A reproduction which distances is a reproduction which, certainly, makes the object recognised, but which at the same time makes it seem foreign” (Bertolt Brecht, Ecrits sur le théâtre, II, L’Arche, 1997, p.17). Distancing in Brecht rejects the traditional psychological analysis of the character, in favor of a translation of the interior life into external movements. This is exactly the choice that Jonathan Glazer makes in his film.

[8] This documentary “desire” at work in the film is first indicated by the choice to film on the very sites of the events but also when, in the last minutes, the director suddenly abandons fiction to show the daily work of the employees of the Auschwitz Museum, thereby evoking the victims through the objects (shoes, suitcases) kept there.

[9] The Nazis, for example, took care to make Treblinka station a pleasant and welcoming place, with brightly painted benches and flower beds.

[10] Unlike the wife of the commander of Buchenwald, Ilse Koch, who paraded on horseback in the camp and participated in the abuse inflicted on the detainees. The “Villa Koch” was located inside the camp. Daughter of a peasant, former secretary, member of the Nazi party since 1932, the wife of SS Colonel Karl Otto Koch, whom she married in 1937, experienced a meteoric social rise thanks to this marriage.

[11] “Overworked as they often were, they worked towards the destruction of the Jews as a matter of course” (Raul Hilberg, The destruction of the European Jews, New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985.)

[12] Relieved of his duties in November 1943, due to his affair with a common law inmate (an affair which is mentioned in the film), Rudolf Höss was recalled in the spring of 1944. His main task was to increase the capacities of the gas chambers for the extermination, between May 15 and July 8, 1944, of 435,000 Hungarian Jews.

Eichmann was not lago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain.” Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. It was precisely this lack of imagination which enabled him to sit for months on end facing a German Jew who was conducting the police interrogation, pouring out his heart to the man and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank of lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted. In principle he knew quite well what it was all about, and in his final statement to the court he spoke of the “revaluation of values prescribed by the [Nazi] government.” He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is “banal” and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace. It surely cannot be so common that a man facing death, and, moreover, standing beneath the gallows, should be able to think of nothing but what he has heard at funerals all his life, and that these “lofty words” should completely becloud the reality – of his own death. That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man – that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem. But it was a lesson, neither an explanation of the phenomenon nor a theory about it.

Seemingly more complicated, but in reality far simpler than examining the strange
interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil, is the question of what kind of crime is actually
involved here – a crime, moreover, which all agree is unprecedented. For the concept of
genocide, introduced explicitly to cover a crime unknown before, although applicable up to a point is not fully adequate, for the simple reason that massacres of whole peoples are not
unprecedented. They were the order of the day in antiquity, and the centuries of colonization and imperialism provide plenty of examples of more or less successful attempts of that sort. The expression “administrative massacres” seems better to fill the bill. The term arose in connection with British imperialism; the English deliberately rejected such procedures as a means of maintaining their rule over India. The phrase has the virtue of dispelling the prejudice that such monstrous acts can be committed only against a foreign nation or a different race. There is the well-known fact that Hitler began his mass murders by granting “mercy deaths” to the “incurably ill,” and that he intended to wind up his extermination program by doing away with “genetically damaged” Germans (heart and lung patients). But quite aside from that, it is apparent that this sort of killing can be directed against any given group, that is, that the principle of selection is dependent only upon circumstantial factors. It is quite conceivable that in the automated economy of a not-too-distant future men may be tempted to exterminate all those whose intelligence quotient is below a certain level.

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Further suggested reading:

Jake Romm, “We never left the Zone of Interest”, Verso Books Blog, 28/06/2024

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