Theodor Adorno famously wrote that poetry was not possible after Auschwitz, but is cinema? Billy Wilder certainly thought so, getting footage from the camps as evidence as much as anything else. Steven Spielberg, Claude Lanzmann, Alain Resnais and Roberto Benigni have all with differing degrees of success tried their hands.
That might be the problem – a moral problem as everything is when it comes to the industrialised murder of millions of people – that the Shoah cannot simply be an opportunity to prove that cinema can depict it. Poetry, for Adorno, wasn’t about romanticising the event or even giving it a gloss of deeper meaning; it was about organising the information, communicating and representing it. And how can you do that without in someway exploiting or becoming complicit in it. In other words, you don’t want poets – or directors – taking Adorno’s pronouncement as a challenge to accept.
That is the early discomfort felt with Jonathan Glazer’s new film The Zone of Interest, a loose adaptation of the late Martin Amis’ novel. It would not be the last. And yet Glazer’s film is richly daring. It is both meticulous and brutal; aloof and involved; ferocious and cool. It is poetry and cinema, but it is also guilty and it knows that it is. The film opens with several minutes of discordant music as the title fades and blurs to give way to grey blank screen, which itself gives way to a lakeside family picnic of bucolic idyl.
The holiday atmosphere continues at the family’s home as father Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel) is gifted a birthday gift by his adoring family: a rowing schiff. Over the garden wall, the roofs and chimneys of Auschwitz can be seen. We hear dogs barking, pistol shots, train whistles and shunting, screaming, bodies burning, shouted orders. This is where papa goes to work everyday, sometimes riding his favourite horse.
Auschwitz isn’t just behind the wall; it permeates the domestic space as well. The family dog barks when the watchdogs bark. Fraulein Hoss (Sandra Hüller) runs a tight ship, aided by a staff who are cowed by the fragility of their positions. The rooms are filmed with a slick and span neatness reminiscent of a Roy Anderson tableau, though with a Ulrich Seidel lurking grimness to the horns on the wall and the tunnel that runs under the house. The Frau’s roses are beautiful, fertilised with ash that could be from the oven, or from somewhere else.
During the day, industrial clamour resounds; at night, fires glow. It also seeps into dreams, radically shown in a kind of night vision negative. And a negative is what Glazer’s film seems to be, in conversation with other depictions of the ‘Holocaust”’ a word which in itself has a questionably poetic resonance. Where László Nemes’ Son of Saul focuses on one victim’s experience over the course of 24 hours, here the inmates of the camp are glimpsed as the focus remains entirely on the Hoss household. But that focus does not have the close up proximity of Nemes’ film. We are forever kept at arm’s length.
Part of this alienation comes with Glazer’s reminders we are watching a film. Sudden jarring cuts – a colour saturating the screen – music choices, dream sequences. One of the most astonishing moments is the rendering of a victim’s poem in piano notes. Each is a push and a pull. A way of utilising cinema to depict horror while always reminding us this is cinema – this can only ever be an intimation. The urge is to rush to a comforting and simplifying structure with which to understand what is beyond understand. Rather than doing that, Glazer confounds that complicated reaction and complicates it further.
Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt’s over-quoted coinage about “the banality of evil” will undoubtedly be aired in discussing the film. But this isn’t as dismissible as banality. This is something more radical. It is the innocence of evil. It is not indifferent, or unknowing. It includes genocide in the daily weave of life: in the worries at work and the fur coats that show up and the diamonds hidden in the toothpaste. The Hoss family lived deep, rich, comfortable, happy lives. And they too suffer. They too have unsatisfying relationships with their parents, petty office politics that can derail a career, children who misbehave; babies who cry.
In another outrageous sequence, which breaks us out of the film we think we are watching, we are transported into the future to see the memorial of what the film depicts. It is a moment that reminds us of what David Thomson once argued: that the screen is both something which is projected on, a window to the world; but it is also a barrier that protects us, separates us. Just like a wall. We might see the exhibits, the shoes, the suitcases and empathise with the victims, but we are also in the garden with the wall separating us from the actual suffering the actual horror. The achievement of The Zone of Interest is that it includes that idea within itself. It is a film about how you can’t make a film about the Holocaust, a poem about the impossibility of poetry.
The 76th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 16-27 May. Follow our coverage here.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty