The Zone of Interest is not really a Holocaust film. At least not in the traditional sense.

Unlike Schindler’s List, there are no scenes set in a concentration camp – no footage of gas chambers, or slaughter. And unlike The Pianist, the focus is not on suffering victims. Indeed, the victims are entirely offscreen, only present as a sort of ambient, sometimes audible, force. Our cast of characters here are a German family, living an ordinary life – or as ordinary as a life can be, when the patriarch, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) is the commandant of Auschwitz, which lies just over the family’s garden wall.  

The film features no literal violence whatsoever. Occasionally, we glimpse smoke from Auschwitz’s chimneys, cutting through the air; tiny touches, and the only clues that we are literally next door to the camp.  

Instead, the genre that The Zone of Interest falls into – and cunningly undermines – is the domestic drama. Strip the Holocaust context out of the film, and you have a fairly humdrum story of a man trying to keep his family and his career together; working to raise his children, and rise up the ranks of his job. Insert that context back in, and the humdrum becomes terrifying.  

Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller), The Zone of Interest, A24

The result is a film that tackles the question, “How did the Holocaust happen?”. It is interested in the mechanics of the slaughter – how it was enacted, and by whom. The answer lies in Höss. He has, it seems, emptied his work of all emotional context. It’s just a job to him. There are only very rare points where we see him express something like remorse – and even then, such outbursts feel uncontrolled; unconscious. In that way, The Zone of Interest has much to tell us not just about the Holocaust, but about moral responsibility, and the lengths people can go to avoid it. 

Empathy and obligation

Höss has become so inured to his work – so horrifyingly, disturbingly used to it – that he acts like it has no moral quality at all. He seems to have no feelings, no empathy, and more than that, no knowledge that he even should have empathy.  

This dispassionate quality is a common basis of those who avoid moral responsibility. When we do not emotionally feel the pain of others, through empathy, we will not have any motivation to avoid inflicting that pain. This is the heart of moral sentimentalism. If we are emotionally blind to suffering – even if we are aware that it is happening – we will not be compelled to act to stop it. Simply put, without emotions and empathy, our moral obligations lose their force. 

Indeed, Höss’s lack of moral emotions makes him the successful endpoint of the Nazi propaganda machine. This machine worked hard to try and target the emotions of Nazi guards, and in the process neuter natural sympathetic responses. Most notably, Nazi propaganda dehumanised the Jewish population, painting Jews as fundamentally different from human beings. The comics writer Art Spiegelman attributes the following quote to Hitler, which sums up the position: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” 

In this way, Nazi propaganda worked on “perceived similarity.” See, psychological studies suggest that empathy fires when we witness something that feels similar to our own experiences. We have to recognise the pain of others as meaningfully like our own in order to be sympathetic to it. This is why we don’t like seeing animals like dogs in pain – we anthropomorphise them, and see their suffering as “human”. It is also while most of us will not flinch at the torment of a bug. We think of dogs as like us, and bugs as not. The outward signs of a daddy longlegs in distress seem alien enough to us – different enough from our own – that our natural empathy is not triggered. 

For Nazis like Höss, Jewish people were perceived as so alien – so dissimilar from other human beings – that the suffering of Jewish people came with no associated moral obligation. This is what we see in The Zone of Interest. Höss knows he is sending Jewish people to their deaths – how could he not? It is happening right next door – but he feels nothing about this murder. Höss is not maintaining a literal distance from the horror he is enacting, but he is maintaining an emotional distance, and this is what allows him to do what he does. 

Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), The Zone of Interest, A24

A reminder of what we share

This focus on emotional distance is what makes The Zone of Interest so timely – what expands its reach beyond the Holocaust.

We are all occasionally guilty of seeing those who suffer as being “different from us”; their pain as alien, or foreign. Those in warzones; refugees; victims of famine in the Third World – we can all see these people as being divorced from our regular life, emotionally different from us, and as a result, we can unconsciously discharge our obligation to them.

The antidote to this disaffection – to the emotional coolness that can stop us from helping when we need to – is reminding ourselves of what we share with others. It is about tapping into our essential humanity. The philosopher David Hume put this essential humanity simply – he believed as human beings, we all have an aversion to pain, and an attraction to pleasure. If we remember that, and keep in mind that all human beings want to live pain-free lives, then we will see the suffering of others as a great transgression, and will work harder to help when we can.  

Indeed, this is the strange optimism buried at the heart of The Zone of Interest. The film suggests, very subtly, that we have a natural connection to those around us; that this shared wellspring of humanity can never be entirely vanquished.  

Even Höss, who has worked so hard to completely distance himself from the suffering he is directly inflicting, is unable to escape his natural sense of empathy – in a key moment of the film, he has a kind of physical breakdown, suddenly overcome by all that he has tried not to see. There, in that scene, is buried a form of hope: even against all odds, sometimes, human connection survives. Because human feeling survives. And that is where our moral responsibility lives. 

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