… and an addendum re The Zone of Interest
The best book I have ever read is Caste, The Origins of our Discontents by Pulitzer Prize winner, Isabel Wilkerson. It is the only time I ordered multiple copies of any book to be sent to my children and grandchildren, as well as other members of my extended family.
It is the first time I made the decision to read a book a second time with the intention of underlining certain passages, only to give this up on discovering that I was finding something to underline on every page. In fact, more often than not, I found myself underlining everything on the page.
Caste is not a novel. There are no characters to follow through its 398 pages, and yet, someone decided to turn this historical/journalistic masterpiece into a motion picture. The motion picture is Origin and that someone is director Ava DuVernay.
Ms. DuVernay and author Wilkerson wrote the screenplay. Trust me, this is not one of those books that you shake hard three or four times and the screenplay falls out. This is a most original work… and yet… it is also the book. Quite an accomplishment.
Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, whom you should remember as the wife of Will Smith in the movie about the tennis playing Williams’ sisters, essays the role of Ms. Wilkerson and it is (as if anyone needed it) proof of how without a highly paid publicity campaign, art is often overlooked at the Oscar doorstep of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Had anyone noticed… or paid the slightest attention… Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor would surely be the front runner for best performance by an actress in a motion picture, and Origin would likewise be up there with Oppenheimer and the rest while quite possibly leading the pack.
I could go on at length but will not. The tears that remain in my eyes from having just viewed this masterwork are testament enough to a genuinely great motion picture. Origin is currently available in theatres.
And then there is The Zone of Interest, a pretentious, slow moving, Oscar nominated motion picture of the worst kind… a movie without real purpose and a bastardization of the book, by Martin Amis on which this film is purportedly based. I am given to understand that this 10-year-old novel is itself based on true events in and out of the death camps at Auschwitz where more than a million men, women, and children were put to their deaths at the hands of the Nazis.
The interesting thing about this material is the specific location: the home of the Auschwitz Nazi commandant, his wife, and children along with their lovely gardens, all immediately adjacent to the death camp itself.
The book shows us both… the horrors of the camp itself and the relatively mundane life that goes on with the commandant and his family right next door. The movie does not do that. The camera is never allowed inside the camp. If I am not mistaken, there is only one inmate who is seen in the entire film… and that is the individual who plays a sort of gardener for the family’s flower beds. He has not a single line of dialogue.
And so we are left with life among the commandant and his brood. An idea that might work… although I am not so sure of that… were this a stage play. But this is not a work for live theatre, it is on screen, and it is… please forgive the Yiddishism, but there is no better way to say it… a Shanda.
And shame on director Jonathan Glazer for even attempting to sanitize the Holocaust in this manner. I would be more agitated were the film not such a total and complete failure as a motion picture, so much so that I predict that less people than died at Auschwitz will go to a theatre to see this movie.
I will save my irritation for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which, in an apparent attempt at political correctness, somehow thought this was a film worthy of its members’ attention. The fact that one of my pro-Palestinian followers recommended this film for my attention remains further proof to me of the film’s underlying malice, given that a minimization of the Holocaust serves an antisemitic version of historical events.
Besides Hollywood’s Academy, the same folks in France who celebrated Jerry Lewis as the consummate American auteur, voted the director of this thing their Grand Prix award at Cannes. Sandra Huller, who is being so celebrated for her excellent work in Art of the Fall, is also receiving accolades from the nation’s critics for doing considerably less in her role as the commandant’s wife in The Zone of Interest. I would label her performance in The Zone a non-event. If you must, the film can be found in theatres, but then so can stale popcorn.
|Some of my incoming mail occasionally takes issue with my point of view. Sorta goes with the territory. I don’t mind it and, given the price tag on these articles, I feel free to simply file the missive of complaint and move on. That said, the following disagreement with a film review of mine brought me up short. I will not go so far as to say it changed my feelings about the movie The Zone of Interest, but it may… repeat for emphasis, may… get me to go back and look at that motion pictureone more time. Just possibly, it may change your appetite to see it or not. Here, for your edification, is another take on the film in question from my middle grandchild, Greer Rose Glassman:
Wow! Your take is bewildering to me!
I left the theater completely in shambles, cried in my car for several minutes and carried about my day feeling heavy in heart.
It is generally accepted that what makes scary movies, well, scary, is the buildup and concealment of the monster itself. The ick that lurks is that which makes our hair stand on end… It’s the shadowy imaginings and personal fears you attribute to the thing that makes it all the more terrifying. When the monster is finally revealed, the jig is up, you’re faced with whatever the villain may be, fangs et al, and by way of exposure, fear fades because it can be dealt with. I thought it was quite compelling that was all flipped on its head, in The Zone of Interest.
What I found impeccably horrifying about the film is knowing the absolute terror that is going on just off set, beyond the barbed wire. The auteur assumes we all understand just how unequivocally despicable the Holocaust was. We know this truth as self-evident; we feel it’s reverb to this very day. Therefore, we need not see the literal suffering of Jews on screen, one might even argue it would be retraumatizing and exploitative of the Jewish victim identity, the boy in the striped pajamas is burned into our brains, already. I thought it was highly strategic to design a film from this new perspective, and I disagree with your sentiment that it is a sanitation. The director is a Jewish man who spent 10 years making a movie about the Holocaust. It is his ability to portray the villains as basically relatable by way of homelife simplicity that makes for such an earth-shattering story – its thesis is about the capacity for violence and the lengths people will go to preserve their own family stability.
When the wife puts on the coat and wears the lipstick found in the pocket, my stomach immediately curdled – I can’t remember the last time a scene in a movie made me so physically ill. The coat itself is a character – just as the mail delivered clothes are – dumped on the kitchen table to be plucked apart by Nazi wives and their maids. It is precisely the missing owners of these clothes that we are left to think on, to mourn. The real main characters are those that are obfuscated, by design. Their belongings are what ties us to them, which is later mirrored as we look upon the thousands of real, preserved shoes of those killed in the Holocaust, towards the end of the film.
The identity of the wife as a caretaker and mother, who plays with her baby in the garden, while priding herself on being called the “Queen of Auschwitz,” cements her as one of the more sinister and blood chilling female villains in film, for me. We bear witness to the rearing of a Nazi, the corruption of innocence by way of racist ideology, all the while in this serene and idyllic setting that she is determined to never leave. A kind of ethical pathetic fallacy if you will. It is a reminder of the insidiousness of life, when it carries on despite the inflicted horrors that occur right in your own backyard – a cognitive dissonance that allows for the perpetration of violence, so long as your own abode is tended to, and the flowers still bloom in your rose beds.
The film is also a depiction of psychopathic ambition by whatever means necessary. Confronted by the almost boring mundanity of this evil task makes it all the more scary. I’m thinking of the scene where the husband is calculating how much gas would be required to take out the audience in the third act, noting how tall the ceilings were – analysis at its most cruel. It is reiterated on several occasions throughout the film, how to make killing Jews more efficient, by way of differently architected chambers, capacity of trains, etc. The clerical nature implies the total dehumanization that occurred, which again reinforces just how treacherous these characters are, devoid of empathy, or a true moral North.
The contemporary scenes injected towards the final act, in which we are inundated by sounds of vacuum cleaners amidst custodial workers tidying the Holocaust museum felt similar to the theme of the film itself – an act of preservation of the past, a sort of mirror, with history reflecting upon us these grave injustices as a commandment to never return there. I thought the level of detail in costume design and setting were without flaw, it was highly transportive, which only added to this harrowing sentiment.
I also find it stimulating to think about what it must be like for German actors to muster up whatever ancestral zeitgeist for these roles. I’m sure there is much internal discomfort, similar to what I can only assume it must be like for white actors playing plantation / slave owners, shouting the “N word” at their Black acting counterparts. I’d imagine there must be some emotional confrontation you’d have to have with yourself, as a vessel for history telling, by way of your own comparative lineage… Who knows.
I’m sorry you did not like my recommendation, I really felt transformed by this movie and would have loved to digest it in person with you over stale popcorn.
Different strokes, I guess!
After I wrote this I googled Johnathan Glazer to read up a bit on his process, I found this article in the Guardian, which admittedly aligns with a lot of what I said already, but there is some interesting stuff towards the end about Sandra Huller’s initial reaction to being asked to play the role. Linked here.
Looking forward to watching Origin. 🙂
Love you. G
What can I say? Proud grandpa.
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