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  • Writer's pictureTroy Kinney

Zone of Complicity

Zone of Interest (2023)

As the film Zone of Interest begins it is a fade to black, an entering into darkness. We awaken in a green field. We are near a water’s shoreline with a family enjoying the sun. Perhaps they are enjoying a picnic. They quickly pack up, load into their cars and drive home.

After watching Zone of Interest I am wondering if I should have done the same. Seen the sun, stood at the shore, packed everyone up and drove home.

The film, in all respects, is a horror film. It is a film where the protagonist is one of the most accomplished embodiments of human evil, not a monster from an oral tradition like Grendel wreaking havoc for twelve years in Beowulf.  No, a human being from reality, from the past. A man who, during the weekends and evenings, spends time enjoying his wife and kids, going on picnics and horseback riding with his eldest boy. During the day, however, he walked a few paces to work in his pressed gray uniform with tall black leather boots, overseeing the slaughter and eradication of thousands.

The World War II Nazi, Rudolf Hoss, is the protagonist, and he is disgusting. Not in the ways you might expect. For all intents and purposes, he is good natured, clean, kind to his family and really cares for them. He is revolting due to the auspicious way he lives his life. We usually see him from a distance, as if we are watching a picture frame, a camera on a tripod. We watch as he does household things, talks with his wife across beds before lights out, watches his kids splashing in the pool. His wife enjoys herself with gifts of fur coats whisked away from those who are surely in the death camp. Her pride and joy, though, is that garden near the pool where the kids play. At one point in the film Hoss has some men over to casually enjoy company, a drink, while collaborating in a plan considering a breakthrough system of ovens with which to more quickly, thoroughly and continuously burn the bodies of Jews. It was Operation Hoss.

Yet all these things are tangential even though they are the visual focus of the film. The real terrifying horror of the film is not seen. It is heard. The film has won two Oscars, one for sound. That damned sound.

That damning sound.

The film stirred something in me. Revulsion? Anger? It is absolutely haunting. That sound. I think I want to hate something. But who do I hate? Hoss and his busybody wife? The Nazis? That sound? The filmmaker? Myself?

After the initial picnic river trip and the family returning to their domicile, the evening closes our first scene and, all the while, as Rudolf douses all the lights in the house one by one, the audience hears something.  It is continuous, like a whistleless train, but not a train. It’s a dark sound, rolling, subtle, yet ever present. It’s the ovens. The ovens cremating Jews.

In the morning, we are outside of the house and see a tall block wall topped with metal poles and barbed wire; we hear and conclude that those ovens are still going. A low systematic sound, it singes its way into our minds and burns its memory onto our lives. But it’s not just the ovens now. There are other sounds coming from over that wall. Loud voices, shouts and orders from soldiers and screams, not like you’d hear at an amusement park or a camp lake, but the terrifying sounds of people living in a nightmare. Then there are the popping sounds, gunfire. And those ovens.

Occasionally, during a camera pan, a large brick tower comes onto the screen. Smoke and flame billowing out. Human bodies fuel that furnace. We in the audience know this and we say nothing.

Early on, in the theater, I was so disturbed and a little desperate, that I wanted to stand up and yell. I wanted to scream for it to stop, to shout, “Don’t you hear it? Don’t you hear that sound? It’s the damned ovens!” But I didn’t do anything. I just sat there and kept watching, kept listening. Compliant. And I felt as if I was simply acquiescing to evil. No one else in the theater did anything either. Like the people living in the towns just outside those Jewish concentration camps. Compliant.

Part of the mesmerizing idea of the film is that the Hoss family goes about their life as if it is normal to have those sounds and smells. The soot and ash that must fall from the sky, that same ash that the Jewish servants use in the Hoss’s garden.

The way the children run around that yard attached to Auschwitz. Never flinching at those gunshots, never pausing to look toward the wall and ponder. They never act as if the smell in the air should be of a concern. Or that those desperate, human screams even matter.

I realize now that it was not for me to stand up during this film and yell stop. These sad events already happened. The atrocities of Operation Hoss are ended. The real question is not about whether or not I was complicit in the murder of millions from the past, but do I recognize inhumanity in my zone of interest now?

Therein lies a metaphor from the film. We, too, have a zone of interest outside our walls. Frequently, these walls are in our own yard and they block our hearts and minds from others outside. Are we too busy to get to know our own neighbors, co-workers? The single mom, the widow and orphan? Do we hear their cries or do we only hope someone comes up with a more efficient way of dealing with the marginalized? Oftentimes, church-folk do this well. They stand within their religious walls, sheltered from the world, as those within their zone of interest, right outside, are heading towards a fire that the Bible says is all too real.  

There’s an ironic thing as the movie winds down. I felt like retching and that’s exactly what Hoss does at the end of the film. He descends a staircase alone and stops, bends over and dry heaves. He continues his descent, another flight, and retches again. Nothing comes out. Perhaps he is empty. The film ends in that staircase with that wretch of a man descending into darkness.

As the credits appeared, all that soot, and ash fell on me. It was in my hair and in my head, it covered my clothes. I left footprints in it as I walked out.

Hoss descended an unlit staircase and walked down into darkness.

I did not go with him.

I walked into the light.




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