Skip to main content

The Zone of Interest: The banal dreams of Nazi settler colonialism

In Jonathan Glazer's Oscar-winning movie, you do not see Auschwitz the camp; you see Auschwitz the colony. Neither exists without the other
English director Jonathan Glazer poses with the Oscar for Best International Feature Film for "The Zone of Interest" during the 96th Annual Academy Awards on 10 March, 2024 (AFP)

In the 1965 Soviet film Ordinary Fascism, also known as Triumph Over Violence, director Mikhail Romm’s voiceover implores the viewer to pay attention to the petit-bourgeois quality of fascism in general, and Nazism in particular. 

Over archival footage of German small-business owners leaving their stores in uniform and hopping onto bicycles, he remarks, almost comically: "Here is a butcher, and there goes a baker." This brief scene succinctly captures Hannah Arendt’s (by now highly cliched) notion of the "banality of evil", a phrase she coined while covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann, known as the "architect of the Holocaust". 

But Arendt’s own refusal to interrogate the inherently colonial nature of European fascism, a refusal inseparable from her own racism and western chauvinism, has blunted the sharpness of that term’s capacity for critical insight. Yes, the Holocaust was engineered by middle managers, but to what end? What did they get out of the horrific affair, besides satiating their sadism? 

A simple answer is Jonathan Glazer’s Academy Award-winning film,The Zone of Interest: land - more specifically, enough land to replicate the expansionism of American manifest destiny, to recreate the German Aryan into the fascist ideal of the Ubermensch. 

Over the weekend, the film won the Oscar's best international film award. In his acceptance speech, Glazer told the audience: "Right now we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of October 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack in Gaza."

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


The story follows the mundane domestic lives of Rudolf Hoss (Christian Friedel), the longest-serving commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and his wife and children, as they go about their days in their idyllic house adjoining the camp grounds. 

As the primary subject is the Holocaust, the film has been widely noted for its refusal to visually depict any of the atrocities that occurred within the camp, though the audience frequently hears gunshots and screams from over the wall. This bold narrative and political choice has been consistently misread in mainstream film criticism as a simple affirmation of Arendt’s limited perspective on the "banality of evil". 

It is far too simplistic to describe the film as a truncated biopic of its subject, nor is it accurate to reduce it to a formal experiment; a film about the Holocaust in which you do not see the Holocaust. In other words, The Zone of Interest is not simply a film about the Nazi official as a middle manager, but is much more importantly a film about the Nazi official as a settler. 

Cartoon villains

Since 1939, mainstream western education, media, and discourse about World War II and the Holocaust have strived to depict Nazism as a catatonic movement of unbridled hate, rather than a settler-colonial one in continuum with those of other western powers. 

Nazis tend to be portrayed as larger-than-life cartoon villains, rather than quite ordinary monsters, easily comparable to their colonial brethren in the Belgian Congo, French Algeria or British India, among countless other places around the world that have had the misfortune of experiencing western occupation and colonialism. 

Writers and scholars from across the Third World have, of course, long questioned this narrative. One of the most notable and succinct critiques was levied by Aime Cesaire in his Discourse on Colonialism

But such perspectives have been uncommon within the US. With the exception of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which has frequently been criticised for oversimplifying the primary terms of its investigation, writing on the intimate connections between western, and very specifically American, colonialism and Nazism is often marginalised. Scholars such as Carroll P Kakel and Edward B Westermann are few and far between. 

The beauty of these scenes begs the (rhetorical) question: what is the difference between Hoss's family and that of any other frontiersman? 

This connection is laid bare in The Zone of Interest, both visually and politically.

The amount of screen time dedicated to the lush vistas of the Nazi-occupied Polish countryside, in which Hoss and his family hike, swim and play, evokes the frontier romanticism of classic western films such as The Naked Spur, Shane and Johnny Guitar

Being Hollywood productions, these stories, of course, implore the viewer to identify with the settlers’ yearning for the vast landscapes they seek to conquer and rid of their indigenous inhabitants.

In The Zone of Interest, the gaze is identical, but it is now one of a Nazi as opposed to that of a noble American pioneer. The beauty of these scenes begs the (rhetorical) question: what is the difference between Hoss’s family and that of any other frontiersman? 

Pivotal scene

Glazer’s identification of Poland as a frontier for Nazi German expansion is one shared unambiguously by his characters. In a pivotal scene, Hoss and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) argue as to whether they should leave Auschwitz. He has been reassigned elsewhere by his higher-ups and his instinct, as that of any family man, is to take his wife and children with him. 

But Hedwig refuses: “Your work is in Oranienburg now. Mine is raising our children.” When he insists, she delivers the final blow: “This is our home. We’re living how we dreamed we would since we were 17 - beyond how we dreamed. Out of the city finally. Everything we want, on our doorstep. And our children strong and healthy and happy. Everything the Fuhrer said about how we should live is exactly how we do. Drive east, Lebensraum. Here it is.” 

Israel's war on Gaza encapsulates the entire history of European colonialism
Read More »

This is one of the most important speeches, not simply in the film, but in the sum total of narrative media that has thus far been produced about Nazism and the Holocaust. 

Hedwig’s impassioned plea emphasises what the vast majority of western media narratives seek to suppress: that genocidal fascist projects are always about reproduction as much as they are about destruction. This is why Lebensraum, German for "living space", is so seldomly discussed in mainstream depictions of the Holocaust. 

The Nazis’ ideology of eastward settler expansion did not simply echo American manifest destiny, but considered it a blueprint. This is why the robotically repeated line that the film is about not depicting, or “looking away” from Auschwitz is patently false. You do not see Auschwitz the camp. You see Auschwitz the colony. Neither exists without the other. 

Ironically, and despite being the only filmmaker at the 96th Academy Awards to explicitly acknowledge the situation, Glazer himself apparently failed to see the resonance of his own work to the ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza. In multiple interviews, he has responded meekly when asked about Israel’s mass slaughter and starvation of Palestinians since 7 October, with a shallow lamentation for “both sides”. He repeated this liberal sentiment during his acceptance speech for Best Foreign Language Film, ignoring how the Hoss family has been reborn time and time again in Sderot and Ashkelon and all the other settlements of the so-called Gaza envelope

Anyone uncomfortable with such comparisons needs only to listen to the words of Israeli leaders speaking of Auschwitz as their end goal for Gaza. I wish Glazer had done so, rather than fall into the tired old trap his own work so brilliantly escapes.

When it comes to colonialism, what most urgently demands our attention is not the banality of evil, but the evil of banality. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hazem Fahmy is a writer and critic from Cairo, currently pursuing a PhD at Columbia University. His writing has appeared in The Boston Review, Prairie Schooner, Mubi Notebook, Reverse Shot, and Mizna, among other publications.
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.