• Zone Of Interest (2023)

    March 24, 2024
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    Zone of Interest (2023) film poster, courtesy of Wikipedia.

    Rudolf Höss: I wasn't really paying attention... I was too busy thinking how I would gas everyone in the room. ~Zone of Interest (2023)

    Winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Zone of Interest (2023) is perhaps one of the most placid films ever made yet it leaves the viewer with the feeling best expressed by Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror!” At the center of the apocalyptic upheavals of World War II is Hitler’s “Final Solution” in which he and his henchman methodically planned the extermination of European Jewry, leading to the deaths of 2/3 of the Jews of Europe. While there have been other holocausts in history, such as the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840’s; the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks from 1915 to 1923; the mass starvation of the Ukrainians in the 1930’s; the ethnic cleansing of the Poles by the Soviets in the 1940’s; Stalin’s purges of his own people at various times throughout his thirty-five year reign of terror; Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the mid-20th century and the mass murders of the Pol Pot regime in the 1980’s, as well as others, none compares to the vast extent of the systematic murders of the Jews by the Nazis. While the aforementioned genocides numbered in the tens of thousands to the millions, none surpasses the Shoah and its six million victims, with the possible exception of the deaths due to Chinese Communism, for which there are no reliable statistics. While Holocaust deniers try to claim that six million deaths is an exaggeration, anyone who has studied the topic, such as Father Patrick Desbois in his book Holocaust by Bullets (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009) knows that even into the 21st century mass graves of Jews have continued to be discovered throughout Eastern Europe. After so much death, the world could never be the same again.

    However, we Americans often wonder at the compliance of the Germans and other nationalities with the Nazi policies at rounding up and handing over their friends and neighbors who happened to be Jewish. We know there were active underground movements of brave citizens, usually persons of faith, who risked their lives to save Jews from the gas chambers, such as the Ten Boom family in Holland, as told in Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. Yet when we see films on the Holocaust or even documentaries on The History Channel we are stunned that a crime of such magnitude was allowed to happen in the sight of all the world.

    This is where a film like Zone of Interest is helpful. It focuses on the family of Rudolf and Hedwig Höss. Rudolf was the commanding officer at the death camp at Auschwitz in Poland. Dr. Josef  Mengele and many other twisted souls served under him. In the film, as in real life, Rudolf and Hedwig have five children and several servants who live with them in a house with a spacious garden, adjoining the walls of the concentration camp. While many witnesses testified to the stench emanating from the camp, the Höss family appears oblivious to it. The children play; Frau Höss entertains friends and family, has tea parties and dinner parties. They laugh and joke, swim in their pool and pick flowers in the extensive gardens. The family travel on Sundays to a nearby lake where they picnic and swim, romping in a green meadow as if there was no war or death camp. Frau Höss loves her house and garden and begs to be allowed to stay there when her husband is to be transferred.

    Yet, throughout the film, outside the walls, one hears the sounds of terror, of screams, of shooting, of executions, as well as the constant billowing smoke from the huge chimney. The scene in which the gardeners fertilize the roses with ashes from the ovens of Auschwitz is one of the most alarming. When the mother of Frau Höss visits, she who was once a housemaid in the home of a wealthy Jewish family, is delighted with the success of her daughter having such a fine house and garden. She wonders if the great lady she once worked for is in the camp. Yet at night as she sees the glow of the ovens she is stunned with horror and leaves in the morning. Meanwhile, Frau Höss is often brought the possessions of the prisoners, including undergarments, and a fur coat. She tries on the fur coat and finds a lipstick in the pocket. She puts the lipstick on. Her bland rapaciousness at using the property of others is disgusting beyond words. And yet she and her husband display a vulgar self-satisfaction in the material possessions and liberties they have accrued through their cooperation with the evil plans of the regime.

    While the Höss family go about their self-indulgent business, not a single scene is shown of the prisoners or the real business of the camp, which makes it all the more eerie. Rudolf Höss is seen going to meetings, where he is instructed to speed up the exterminations. He also goes for a medical exam; he receives the best of care while behind the walls the prisoners are facing starvation and being the subject of medical experiments. Once he comes home with blood on his boots. A maid cleans them and one of the sons of the family put them on in imitation of his father.

    Hopefully, most people watching the film, or any film about Nazis, say to themselves: “I would never do that.” We hope that is true. And yet many Americans since 1973 encouraged the spread of abortion, seeing it as a good, rather than as a silent, hidden holocaust of the innocent. Many still support abortion, insisting that since the victims are small, their lives do not count. So said many cultured, educated people about the mass murder of the Jews; because they were Jews, it did not count. It is easy to dehumanize those whom we consider inconvenient.

    Overall, the film is a teachable moment as it shows how attachments to our pleasures and creature comforts can lead to soul-slaying indifference to the sufferings of others. Evil thrives when good people do not take a stand. In Nazi Germany, speaking out could send a person of conscience to prison. Most of us are threatened only with social exclusion when we speak out, and yet we are afraid, and go along to get along, as long as our roses are blooming amid the ashes.

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    Mary-Eileen Russell

    Mary-Eileen Russell grew up in the countryside outside of Frederick, Maryland, "fair as the garden of the Lord" as the poet Whittier said of it. She graduated in 1984 from Hood College in Frederick with a BA in Psychology, and in 1985 from the State University of New York at Albany with an MA in Modern European History. She is the author of six books under the pen name of "Elena Maria Vidal." She lives in Talbot County, MD with her family.
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