David at the Movies: the garden next to Auschwitz


This movie is almost entirely set in the house and garden of Rudolf Höss, commandant of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. A high wall separates the garden from the camp where tens of thousands of Jews are being exterminated. The storyline never takes us over that wall, although screams and cries and gunshots are often heard and dark smoke rises from the crematorium chimney. The full horror of the Holocaust is left to our imagination, although we are shown staff meetings in the dining room where the number of trains and elimination targets are discussed. Meanwhile Höss’s children play in the garden, as if unaware of the horror behind the wall. The children of other officers come to a birthday party.

They are not unaware of the horror. One of the kids is given gold teeth to add to his collection. Höss’s wife parades in a magnificent fur coat brought from the camp; she even tries on the lipstick left in a coat pocket. And she frets when the possibility of her husband’s transfer to another camp threatens to separate the family from the garden she cherishes.

Adapted from a novel by Martin Amis and beautifully filmed, this is a subtler, darker movie than The Boy in the Striped Pjamas, which it inevitably recalls; the commandant’s son was accidentally herded into the gas chamber, and we could, if we chose, see him as somehow a more “innocent” victim than the deported Jews he died with. The banality of evil is at the core of The Zone of Interest, and I think the audience is invited to see the indifference of the Höss family as symbolic of the indifference of the German nation to the genocide on their collective doorstep.

A grim movie on a grim theme. It will not be to every cinemagoer’s taste. I’m not sure it was to mine.

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