Many films dedicated to Nazi horror and the Holocaust have been welcomed, celebrated and rewarded by the Cannes Film Festival. There was, in particular, the tragicomic ‘‘Life is Beautiful’’ by Roberto Benigni (Grand Prix – 1997), the moving and masterful ‘‘The Pianist’’ by Roman Polanski (Palme d’Or – 2002 ), the dark and poignant ‘‘White Ribbon’’ by Michael Haneke (Palme d’Or – 2009) and the atypical and dazzling ‘‘The son of Saul’’ by Laszlo Nemes (Grand Prix – 2015).By Atmane Tazaghart and Nicolas Chene
These major and necessary movies have all faced the same and thorny problem: how to evoke Holocaust without showing its unbearable horror? And of all the approaches adopted or considered, that of ‘‘The Zone of Interest’’ by Jonathan Glazer – which has just won the Grand Prix at the 76thCannes Film Festival – is by far the most trying: the British filmmaker has the singular and confusing choice to film Auschwitz from the adjacent house of Nazi commander Rudolf Höss, who ran the terrible camp from May 1940 to December 1943, and again from May to September 1944.
From the pretty house – where this Nazi criminal led a most peaceful family life, tenderly caring for his children and tending with extreme care the roses in his garden – all you can see of the terrifying death camp are a few chimneys of gas chambers. And we hear of the horror that unfolds there only vague nocturnal cries that we guess to be those of fugitives being shot down or drowning in the river.
The horror stops at the doorstep of the commandant’s house, as do the blood-covered military boots that diners leave there for a servant to clean with a garden hose. The commander’s family liked it so much that when he received a transfer order in December 1943, his wife asked to stay there: ‘‘We have everything we’ve always dreamed of here’’! And when he was asked to return there, in May 1944 – his successor no longer able to keep up with the macabre rhythms since the deportation of the Jews from Bulgaria (12,000 deportees per day) – he rushed to the telephone to announce the ‘‘good news’’ to his wife!
In the end, the film shows of the horror of Auschwitz only a few shots of the current museum: walls of personal effects of deportees (clothes, shoes, prostheses of all kinds) put under glass, which the cleaning staff of the museum apply to clean thoroughly. It has, however, managed the feat of pointing the finger – as no cinematographic work has ever been able to do – at what is most terrifying in Nazi horror: the ‘‘banality of evil’’ personified by these ‘‘monsters with human faces’’ capable of committing the worst crimes that man can commit, then go home quietly, after hours of ‘‘work’’, to tenderly take care of their children and the roses of their gardens!