Film & TV
4 min read

The Zone of Interest’s peripheral vision of evil

Director Jonathan Glazer bests Spielberg thanks to a quality of attention.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

in an immaculate garden a family play in and around a small swimming pool. Beyond the garden wall, a barracks is visble with crematorium smoke rising beyond it.
The Höss family at play at their Auschwitz home.

This has been a tremendously difficult review to write. I’ve written and re-written this review for two weeks now. You will see why. 

The Zone of Interest begins idyllically. A family is picnicking by a lake. The men swim, the women pick berries in the woods. It's a gorgeous sunny day. The family happily drive home down an evocatively headlamp-lit country road. The father walks through their palatial house, turning off every light. The next morning the family are gathered outside to give the father his birthday present: a canoe. Two boys lead their blindfolded father gently down the steps from the house to the garden. The garden is magnificent: filled with flowers and immaculately kempt. 

The father is wearing an SS uniform. The camera pans round the garden. Behind the garden wall you see glimpses of barbed wire, belching chimneys, rows of dormitories. You hear shouts, moans, cries, gunshots. This is no ordinary house, no ordinary garden, no ordinary family. This is the home of SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss, his wife Hedwig, and their five children. This is Auschwitz. Höss runs it. Hedwig runs their beautiful home. The children run around. That is the next 100 minutes of film. It's a realist family drama from the 1940s. The children are children, the wife is house-proud to a fault, and the husband is hard-working, ambitious, and keen to do a good job. I don’t want to say much more. You simply need to go and see the film. 

When Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil it was controversial. Many commentators misunderstood or misrepresented her point. Evil acts - especially an evil act as totemic as the Holocaust - are not ‘banal’. The people who commit evil on such a scale often can be. A genocidal machine of such scale and complexity needs a tremendous number of cogs… they can’t all be murderous sociopaths. Eichmann was banal in himself - he was of average intelligence, uncreative in his thinking, a follower of fads and joiner of organisations. 

This is exactly how Rudolf and Hedwig are presented. Christian Friedel plays Höss with an almost continual ambience of low-level boredom. Pillow-talk with his wife, reading to his children, a discussion about the most efficient way to incinerate the Jews in his camp, is all spoken with roughly the same expression and tone. He clearly wants to do well in his work, but it doesn’t matter what the work is. Sandra Hüller gives Hedwig a marvelous, slightly nervous energy. She always seems to be keeping a combination of grasping envy and slimy smugness just barely contained beneath the surface of her features. She can’t think of much beyond the order of her house, the beauty of her garden, and her status among other SS wives. Their quality of attention is essentially absent.  

Glazer has the maturity to recognise that looking directly at evil stops you from really seeing it. 

Not to be flippant, but they would be dreadful dinner-party guests, and not just because they are Nazis: they seemingly have no capacity for a thought that goes beyond themselves, and their immediate environment, and their immediate needs and wants. They are banal. 

Between them Jonathan Glazer (director), Łukasz Żal (cinematographer), and Mica Levi (musician) give a remarkable demonstration of the power of restraint. The camerawork is naturalistic and almost never showy. The performers look like they were given the latitude simply to be in the scene: no over-direction. The soundscape is hauntingly bare. There is little music or sound beyond the ambient. The mood is, of course, set by the fact that the ambient sounds are roaring furnaces, gunshots, and desperate screaming. The film does not attempt to make a point or demand a response; Glazer simply gives you a slice of domestic life that just happens to be located next door to a death-camp. 

Steven Spielberg has suggested this is the best film tackling the dreadful subject of the Holocaust since Schindler's List. He is wrong. The Zone of Interest is a far superior film. I love Spielberg, but Schindler's List is offensively bad. It takes a subject of such abject depravity and then tries to emotionally manipulate you into feeling bad: the music, the speeches, the more-is-more approach to showing you the pinnacle of human cruelty. Glazer has the maturity to recognise that looking directly at evil stops you from really seeing it.  As Augustine says, evil is nothing in itself. Evil is the corruption and annihilation of what is good and lovely. Evil isn’t some great monster that forever battles with God. God is good…no…God is Good. So evil is literally nothing - goodness in decay to nothingness.  

Glazer, whether intentionally or not, recognises this theological truth. Looking at the full abyssal nothingness of evil is beyond human comprehension. But if you see it in the periphery, then you see it. When you hear the screams of the innocent and at the same time see a woman cheerfully ignore them while she plays in a flowerbed with her infant daughter, then you recognise the potential for human depravity. You can’t truly encounter the nothingness of evil, and the dangers of letting its parasitical and destructive hunger spread, until you’ve watched others ignore it without missing a beat. I’ve never cried while watching Schindler's List. I cried while watching The Zone of Interest. Twice. 

Glazer et al have done the world a great service with this film. They’ve reminded us that the weapon against evil is the rejection of empty banality. Banality is loving yourself. To reject banality is to embrace a quality of attention that is truly outward looking. Rejecting banality is loving your neighbour as yourself. 

6 min read

The case for taking a holiday

The reasons we need to rest and re-boot.

Natalie produces and narrates The Seen & Unseen Aloud podcast. She's an Anglican minister and a trained actor.

On a beach lounger someone holds a book aloft to read.

Well, here we are, either literally or metaphorically breaking up for the summer. School’s out and the long evenings demand al-fresco dining – even in the UK where it’s far more likely than not to rain. And of course, it is time to Live Our Best Life as we chase the fantasy and book an eye-wateringly expensive holiday – to “get away from it all”.  

In my early adulthood, holidays were unquestionably lying on a sun-drenched beach with a very large pile of novels. It was escapism pure and simple. And sun worshipping. Then I went on a skiing holiday for the first time in my 30s and was amazed how refreshing it was. When you’re concentrating on not dying, hurtling at high speed down a slippery mountain, the regular patterns of thought are left behind; there is simply no headspace to worry about the things that normally occupy the mind. I came back from a week on the snow with my body feeling completely trashed but my mind fresher than ever before.  

But whatever our holiday preference, be it active, sedentary or a cocktail of both, it is short-lived. A fortnight is the average length of a holiday, maybe it’s just a cheeky long weekend. If you’re really pushing the boat out (literally if going on a cruise as many people do these days a) – a luxurious three or even four weeks. But however long it is, it is – by definition – not lifelong. We build up to it – “can’t wait to get away” and there can be huge expectation for all the things we’ve been struggling with to be magically less stressful “when I get back”. We think all the exhaustion we carry, all the frustration or disappointment, the overworking we live with on a daily basis, will disappear. We binge on relaxation and put huge pressure on ourselves to HAVE FUN and – that which has become the sly new marketing strategy – “making great memories”. Which can all turn out to be even harder work than what we’re trying to get away from. 

Last summer, we went to the Lake District. And it rained. A lot. I mean coming in under the doors/through the windows sort of a lot. So we played Monopoly. And watched the Mission Impossible films. We went for walks in the rain and ate picnics quickly between showers. It was rather like we were living through a low budget British 1980s adaptation of an Enid Blyton novel, instead of the big budget Caribbean fantasia of one’s dreams. By any official descriptor, it was a holiday – but I’m not sure it felt like one.  

There is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest.

So, as I’m keenly interested in the etymology of words, I looked up holiday* to find out whether I had achieved the objective. Holiday = a period of time when you are not at work or school – check; holiday = a period of time spent travelling or resting away from home – hmm, not sure about the resting but we were away; holiday = holy day – hang on, what? 

Most world religions or philosophies have some sort of rhythm or pattern for life which includes times of rest. These often (though not always) coincide with some sort of worship or festival. These are times set apart from the day-to-day occupation of “normal life”. Interestingly, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, rest is baked in right from the beginning. After a six “day” working week, so the beginning of the Creation story tells us, God rested. And just to underline the point, sometime later, that same God gave his people the 10 Commandments, one of which is – take a day off.  

The word “holy” means set apart, sacred and right at the heart of the Jewish and Christian lifestyle there is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest. When we can get some objectivity on our productivity; when we can see (as God did all those years ago) that what we have done is good and we can enjoy it. 

In our 24/7, I-achieve-therefore-I-am culture, we almost certainly don’t do nothing for a day a week. We are always doing something. Even on our day(s) off, we’re reading or scrolling or running or “making memories”. Where is the rest? Where is the holy?  

We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made. 

There is an ironically busy industry that has flourished in recent years around mindfulness and retreats; an industry which highlights the ultimately human need for rest. There are apps which help us breathe, there are gurus who massage us in body and mind. Cynically, some say capitalism has caught on to the ancient necessity of acknowledging and attending to our humanity, our need to stop doing and simply be. I think God would say, hooray! Or as Jesus put it, “Come with me to a quiet place and find some rest.” 

How can we put rest back on the agenda of our own lives? It’s different for each of us. One person’s rest is another person’s nightmare. Whatever it looks like, we need to learn how to have “a period of time not working” (whatever work may occupy us, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen). It’s a well-recognised fact that if your electronic device stops functioning properly, if you turn it off for a bit, it’ll restart happily and we are encouraged to restart our devices regularly. We all know that we’re a bit like that and yet... We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made.  

We need those moments when we put a spiritual umbrella in the glass of our life, kick back and look at what has been. We can give space for gratitude; for reconnection with ourselves, with our life and even with the omnipotent God who role models rest. 

So, this summer, we’re going to the South of France. I’m absolutely exhausted already. I’ve been organising a rota of (very kind) people to look after our dog; preparing work so I’m ready for the day after we get back; buying gallons of sun cream (just in case France runs out); booking trips and Googling where the nearest boulangerie is so we can have idyllic, spontaneous visits for life-changingly delicious croissants… Going on holiday is really hard work and I haven’t even gone yet. But this year, as I put on my sunglasses and factor 30, I am determined to make time to put the holy in my holiday. And holy days in my life. 

* (of course, if you’re not British, you might be interested in the etymology of the word vacation = "formal suspension of activity, time in which there is an intermission of usual employment"/state of being unoccupied. Which to my mind is summed up by the old adage, a change is as good as a rest, with which I have always taken issue….)