Circle of evil – how the lessons of the past are not learned.

A review of Zone of Interest, Director Jonathan Glazer, by Janet Sillett.*

‘Unforgettable’, ‘haunting’, ‘chilling’: The Zone of Interest, which won this year’s Oscar for Best Inernational Feature Film, is all of these. Its ability to shock is more about what it doesn’t show but in what we hear, imagine and already know.

It shows us the family life of Rudolf Höss, the (real) Commandant of Auschwitz, in their home just outside the camp walls. None of it takes place within the camp itself. It starts with bucolic scenes of the family – Höss, his wife Hedwig and their five children enjoying a picnic. She is seen throughout the film tending her garden, telling the baby the names of flowers, picking vegetables, indifferent to what is going on outside the garden walls but not ignorant or in denial of it.

We learn the family ‘benefit’ from items from the camp – Hedwig parading in a mink coat from a prisoner, now probably dead; a child nonchalantly playing with gold teeth. His elder brother locks him in the glasshouse and hisses like in the gas chambers next door. The children pick up some of what goes on but it has become normal, part of a game. One daughter sleepwalks – maybe despite her mother’s callousness, the horrors do affect them unconsciously.

The camp is always present despite it never being shown – in the smoke that wafts over the garden, the glimpse of trains, but above all in the sounds that emanate from there: the constant churn of the camp, occasionally punctuated by a gunshot, a piercing scream, and shouting. From the garden we can see the top of the Auschwitz tower. As the film’s director, Jonathan Glazer put it “Genocide becomes ambient to their lives”.

Industrialisation is also a theme – in the everyday sounds emanating from the camp to the discussion of top ranking SS officers about how to make the camps more ‘efficient’.

Zone of Interest got excellent reviews. But it really hit the news big-time after Glazer’s speech at the Oscars accepting the award for best international film. I don’t recall any attacks on the film before Glazer made that speech, not even from hard-line Zionists. Some who went on to attack Glazer even praised the film as a movie about depicting the evil of the Nazis.

But there was an immediate outcry over social media after the speech with what Jonathan Glazer actually said being deliberately distorted:

His words:

Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst … We stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza.”

were turned into

We stand here as men who refute their Jewishness…” leaving out the end of the sentence, as if we can’t see for ourselves the video of the speech.

The Holocaust Survivor’s Foundation USA (HSF) chairman David Schaecter labelled the speech “morally indefensible”, and the Anti-Defamation League posted a message on social media saying that his comments were “reprehensible”.

Allison Josephs, founder and executive director of Jew in the City, commented, “Glazer used a common refrain from Jew-haters — that the Holocaust is the “get out of jail free card’ for Jews. He blamed Jews for their own massacre by saying that ‘the occupation led to conflict for so many people,’ which is why he was refuting his Jewishness and the Holocaust being used for this purpose”.

Would the speech have been so furiously attacked if Glazer hadn’t been Jewish? Probably not – the outrage against antizionist Jews is fiercer than against non-Jews (and this isn’t new – as I can vouch for as an antizionist Jew). I’m not sure whether Glazer is even antizionist but he dared to publicly oppose the occupation and the genocide in Gaza, and that was unforgivable.

There have also been prominent Jews and antizionist Jewish groups that have defended Glazer but their views have been far less prominent – at least in the mainstream media.

László Nemes, the director of the Holocaust film Son of Saul, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2016, condemned Glazer’s comments. Nemes’s statement incorporates many of the ways in which Zionists have attempted to trash Glazer – including that his speech misrepresented history and facilitated antisemites who want to wipe out Jewish people:

The Zone of Interest is an important movie… Its director should have stayed silent instead of revealing he has no understanding of history and the forces undoing civilisation, before or after the Holocaust.

Had he embraced the responsibility that comes with a film like that, he would not have resorted to talking points disseminated by propaganda meant to eradicate, at the end, all Jewish presence from the Earth.

It is especially troubling in an age where we are reaching pre-Holocaust levels of anti-Jewish hatred – this time, in a trendy, ‘progressive’ way. Today, the only form of discrimination not only tolerated but also encouraged is antisemitism.

According to Nemes, abhorrence at babies and children being actively starved to death is nothing more than a medieval “longing for purity”.

Nemes demonises those who stand in solidarity with Palestinians and even those who just want to see the end to the carnage. He turns around reality by suggesting that the real victims here are Jews, and that Jews and Israel are increasingly isolated and vulnerable, despite the support of most of the West and the staggering amounts of money and arms still being pumped into Israel by the US.

Nemes accused Glazer of resorting to “talking points disseminated by propaganda meant to eradicate, at the end, all Jewish presence from the Earth”. Ironic, given that Zionists constantly claim to speak for all Jews.

The attacks on antizionist Jews have been widespread in the tweets and statements of those attacking Glazer, for example these from writer and producer Daniella Greenbaum Davis:

It has taken me a few days to process Jonathan Glazer’s words. I’ll sum up my thoughts pretty briefly: plenty of Jews throughout history have tried to refute their Jewishness out of the belief separating themselves from the herd would be their salvation. ”.

They are but one minor example. Jewish history is filled with Kapos– the few who betrayed the many, out of desperation, fear, a twisted determination to survive– even if it meant abandoning everything that makes us who we are.

Nemes’s view that challenging Israel in any way amounts to antisemitism is a core theme of those challenging Glazer, and some, such as this from Israeli author Hen Mazzig, go even further:

Jonathan Glazer doesn’t want his Judaism to ‘justify the occupation,’ because that’s what he blames for the attacks of October 7th. Of course, I strongly disagree. Jews are never to blame for antisemitism and genocidal acts against us. The maker of a Holocaust movie that focuses on Nazi evil should know that. But what the crowd heard that night is what Glazer – apparently – mistakenly said: that he “refutes his Jewishness.” And they gave him a standing ovation. Because the only Jew acceptable for the antisemites is the one which accept their abuse.

The attacks on Glazer are reminiscent of the anti-communist witch-hunting of McCarthyism in the USA in the late 1940s to early 1950s– McCarthyism in the social media age. This became even more of an apt comparison after more than 450 Jewish creatives, executives and Hollywood professionals signed an open letter denouncing Glazer’s speech (the numbers have increased since the letter was first published but apparently anyone can sign with no checks).

“We refute our Jewishness being hijacked for the purpose of drawing a moral equivalence between a Nazi regime that sought to exterminate a race of people, and an Israeli nation that seeks to avert its own extermination.”

Zionists in Hollywood clearly intend to prevent Glazer working there again.

The furore of the smearing of Glazer reflects not the strength of the Zionist case but its weakness – a public renunciation of not just the ongoing genocide but the political context in which it’s happening – the 75 years of oppression of Palestinians and the Israeli occupation – was never going to be met with nuance or rational debate.

Zone of Interest was made before the current massacre in Gaza, but watching it I couldn’t help but think about images from Gaza – Israeli Defence Force soldiers stealing jewellery, dressing up in women’s underwear, Israelis partying in Tel Aviv on the beach. At best the sheer tone deafness of it and at worst the dehumanisation that leads to genocide.

It’s clear that Glazer was not just depicting a specific historic event. He said many times before the Oscars that the film wasn’t about the past but about all of us and it has universal application – how seemingly ordinary people can do terrible things when people are ‘othered’ and dehumanised – “our film shows where dehumanisation leads at its worst. It’s shaped all of our past and present.”

As Naomi Klein put it in The Guardian:

It is this that feels most contemporary, most of this terrible moment, about Glazer’s staggering film. More than five months into the daily slaughter in Gaza, and with Israel brazenly ignoring the orders of the international court of justice, and western governments gently scolding Israel while shipping it more arms, genocide is becoming ambient once more – at least for those of us fortunate enough to live on the safe sides of the many walls that carve up our world. We face the risk of it grinding on, becoming the soundtrack of modern life. Not even the main event.

Commentators have said the film represents the banality of evil but I’d rather say a ‘circle of evil’ – how the past is reincarnated in the present and how seemingly lessons are almost never learned.

 

*Janet Sillett is a socialist and a secular anti-zionist Jew.

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