A Holocaust movie devoid of Jews and focused on the household travails of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his family was bound to be controversial, even if it hadn’t been released just two months after the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas attacks against southern Israel. Director Jonathan Glazer, accepting an Oscar for best international feature, fanned the flames further by explicitly connecting the Nazi “dehumanization” depicted in The Zone of Interest to Israel’s actions in Gaza. In response, prominent Jewish voices, and even the film’s executive producer, denounced Glazer’s speech. 

But something important has been missed in all the polemics that have swirled around The Zone of Interest. It isn’t just a movie about Nazi psychology or a prism through which to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is also a Polish movie. It was co-produced by the Polish Film Institute; it prominently features Poles; and woven into its narrative is an alarming concession to a very Polish brand of Holocaust revisionism.

This film, one hears, is supposed to be about what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” (a phrase that has itself become banal). That’s why we don’t see the concentration camp on screen—this isn’t, we are told, a film about good and evil. Instead, Glazer’s focus is supposedly on the amoral world of the striving, rule-following Hösses, living adjacent to the horrors of the camp off-screen. But carved into that world is a morality tale-cum-agitprop vehicle. 

In The Zone of Interest, the Hösses employ Polish housekeepers. They are barely seen and mostly silent: scurrying about, nervously balancing drinks on trays, covetously eyeing Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller) as she tries on a luxurious fur coat looted from the possessions of a Jewish woman. In one scene, upset with her maid Aniela for putting out two place settings for breakfast after Rudolf has been sent away from Auschwitz, Höss calmly tells her: “I could have my husband spread your ashes across the fields of Babice.” The Poles of Babice, a small village near Auschwitz, were expelled in 1941 to make room for the camps.

The film ends with depictions of Polish women. Only here, we see them as the present-day employees of Auschwitz-Birkenau, no longer a camp but now a state museum. They tend to displays of shoes, bags, hair: the remaining effects of the slaughtered Jews. The Poles, then, are first depicted as victims, then as guardians of memory. But in the middle, they are also depicted as something more. In a particularly striking scene, shown for the first time about one-third of the way through the film and then repeated after an equivalent interval, the Poles become heroes. 

On the scene’s first appearance, the viewer is stunned by the camera’s sudden shift to monochrome thermal imaging. It follows one of the Polish maids, gathering apples in the dark of night to smuggle across a ditch for the Jews in Auschwitz. The apparently inconsistent subplot, appearing nowhere in the 2014 Martin Amis novel upon which the film is based, arrives like a rift in its moral valence. What place does this all-too-not-banal display of bravery and righteousness have in the chronicle of amorality through which Glazer seeks to “demystify” the Nazis? His inversion of color is a cinematographic exception, in the same way that this righteous woman, traveling between her camps, subverts the normalized exception she inhabits. 

The scene punctuates the film to remind the viewer that in this world, too, there is heroism; there are acts of unambiguous morality. But why? In the background of both scenes, Rudolf Höss reads Hansel and Gretel to his young children as they fall asleep. Are Hansel and Gretel the Polish and Jewish people, blameless siblings at the mercy of a cannibalistic monster, the Polish Hansel trying to save her Jewish brother from the witch’s oven?

The Polish Law and Justice Party, or PiS, in power for the entirety of the film’s production, would endorse that interpretation. PiS is the beating heart of 21st-century Polish populism and national conservatism—ideologies which, in Poland, are inseparable from national amnesia surrounding the Holocaust and Polish complicity in it. 

Since 1945, the institution that became Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, or IPN, has been tasked with archive maintenance, educational efforts, and the prosecution of war crimes against the “Polish Nation.” The Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, passed in 1998 shortly before PiS was founded, is a memory law enshrining Poland’s vision of its World War II history: that of Poles as singular victims. It was amended most recently and notoriously in 2018. Article 55a of that amendment, spearheaded by PiS, provides criminal liability, including up to three years’ imprisonment, for claims that Poland shares responsibility for Nazi war crimes. It was partially repealed after substantial US and Israeli pressure (though civil penalties for the same infraction remain under other articles).

“The Germans are demystified; the Jews are simply absent; the Poles, honored.” 

The Zone of Interest is liability-proof under the amendment. It promotes the PiS party line on the Holocaust. The Germans are demystified; the Jews are simply absent; the Poles, honored. The liquidation of Babice is mentioned, but not, of course, the events at Jedwabne three months later. 

In the town of Jedwabne, in July 1941, shortly after the arrival of Nazi troops, local Poles began to murder local Jews. One was stoned. Another was knifed, his eyes plucked out and his tongue cut off. Two mothers, alert to what was happening, drowned their children to prevent their murders. A local priest warned that the pogrom should be stopped; the Nazis, he announced, were about to issue their own command for the annihilation of Jedwabne’s Jews. So it happened on July 10, but the Nazis themselves didn’t take it up. Instead, ethnic Poles did, torturing the remaining Jews—one girl’s head was used as a soccer ball—before burning them alive in a barn. Multiple eyewitnesses stressed that the Germans refused to participate in the destruction. Of 1,600 Jewish residents, seven survived.

Details of the Jedwabne pogrom weren’t widely known in Poland or abroad until the turn of the 21st century. A small monument near the barn where the Jews were burned alive blamed the Nazis alone. It was only the publication of Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Princeton historian Jan T. Gross in 2000 that brought the events to light. Gross’s book and Agnieszka Arnold’s documentary film of the same name were not received well in Poland (to put it lightly), setting off nationwide debates over the country’s wartime image and its history of anti-Semitism. Center-left Presidents Aleksander Kwaśniewski in 2001 and Bronisław Komorowski in 2011 delivered official apologies for the pogrom in Jedwabne. The IPN investigated and found the Poles responsible, erecting a new memorial that was met with opprobrium by Jedwabne locals. 

But this wasn’t to be the end of the story. Jedwabne became a live issue again when PiS came to power in 2015, right around the time Glazer came up with the idea for his film. In a 2016 interview with the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, the new head of the IPN, Jarosław Szarek, placed blame for Jedwabne exclusively with the Germans—essentially contradicting the previous 15 years’ work of the institute he was now running. Polish revisionism reached a fever pitch in the late 2010s, and The Zone of Interest wasn’t immune.

The Polish Film Institute is a state entity whose activities, including the films it produces, are supervised and approved by the minister of culture and national heritage. For virtually all of The Zone of Interest’s production, that minister was Piotr Gliński, a vocal supporter of the 2018 amendment. In 2017, Gliński ousted the director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, which had exhibited the keys to the Jewish homes of Jedwabne, attributing blame for the pogrom to the Poles. Claiming to want a more “Polish point of view” at the museum, Gliński replaced him with Karol Nawrocki, who conveniently has also been the head of the IPN since 2021. And in an ironic twist, the forward-looking infrared camera with which Glazer shot the scenes of the Polish maid smuggling apples was itself provided by the Polish military.

I don’t mean to accuse Glazer of shooting the film on orders to make the Poles look as good as possible. I simply want to point out that that’s how they look. Compare Claude Lanzmann’s magisterial, nine-hour 1985 documentary, Shoah, full of interviews with Poles giving eyewitness testimony of the annihilation of their nation’s Jews, often peppered with anti-Semitic bons mots. It, too, was met with opposition and controversy in Poland. But not The Zone of Interest, with its valorous portrayals. What do we mean when we say that this is not a film about good and evil? 

In his Oscars acceptance speech, Glazer stressed that the film was made to “confront us in the present.” But perhaps Glazer should have begun by being more careful in his confrontation of the past. That might make for a film with more salient lessons on humanity, morality, and memory today. 

Daniel Kipnis is a graduate student in New York.

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