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The Zone of Interest: Environmental Nostalgia and Other-than-Human Representations

Updated: May 21


Jonathan Glazer's historical drama, The Zone of Interest (2023), is a spectacular art film that received five Oscar nominations and two wins for Best International Feature and Best Sound. Based on Martin Amis's novel of the same name, the film offers a fictionalised account of the life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, his wife Hedwig, and their five children who live in a large private house with a beautiful garden neighbouring the concentration camp. As unimaginable as it sounds, the Hösses enjoy their anti-urban Auschwitz utopia. For those who haven't seen the film yet, I encourage you to stop reading here, as there are plenty of spoilers ahead.


Historically, the couple’s upbringing was influenced by the Artaman League, a German youth back-to-land movement that tried to ‘recreate the primordial kinship with nature to which they supposed ancient Germans once had.’ Over time, the movement became increasingly antisemitic, viewing Jews as urban bourgeois. Artaman League members leaned towards National Socialism, notable among them famous SS figures Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Höss. There are many great academic works delving into human-nature relationships in Nazi Germany, which explore the role of animals in the Third Reich, the connection between animal protection and the Holocaust, and the ideology of Nazi environmentalism. This article will adopt a contemporary academic rather than historical lens. It will analyse the interplay between a set of dualities in The Zone of Interest, focusing on the role of other-than-human actors and the environmental nostalgia in its narrative. 


The film's emphasis on the daily lives of the perpetrators, rather than the victims, emphasises how mundane crimes against humanity can be. Many film reviews claimed its similarity with Hannah Arendt's concept of the ‘banality of evil’. Indeed, instead of being portrayed as a monstrous evil, the Höss family are recognisable and, in some moments, relatable villains. During conversations with her husband, Hedwig Höss says that after the end of the war, they will farm. Meanwhile, one of Rudolf's main motivations in pursuing his career is to provide his family with everything they've dreamed of—a large countryside house, a dog, and a life closer to nature.

During his Oscar acceptance speech, film director Jonathan Glazer called for reflection not only on the historical impact of genocide and dehumanisation, but also on its contemporary relevance: “not to say, Look what they did then, rather, Look what we do now.” Fuelled by Glazer’s words, opinions about the film are divided. In a recent critical piece published by CNN, Peter Rutland, a Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, accused The Zone of Interest of fetishising Nazi aesthetics and claimed that the film will appeal to those who like ‘the striking uniforms, the distinctive “fashy” (short for fascist) haircuts’ as well as the ‘nice animals’ and ‘gardening.’ But how did this list come together? And what connects something so innocent as ‘nice animals’ and ‘gardening’ with the Nazi uniform? 

From the very beginning, Jonathan Glazer uses tricks derived from installation art to build an affective atmosphere to implicate viewers in the scene. Following the geographer Nina Morris, darkness breaks the boundaries between the screen and the audience, establishing its own active ‘presence.’ This darkness also takes up two-thirds of the film poster, positioning itself as an active actor in the Höss’ utopian life. In The Zone of Interest, darkness embodies the multiplicity and atrocity of the horror inside the Auschwitz fence, which is not explicitly visible in the film, but omnipresent in the soundscape immaculately designed by Johnnie Burn.


The filming was organised in the most organic, close-to-life manner, exclusively using diegetic light, and avoiding filming team members within the set. While darkness blurs the boundaries between the audience and the narrative, natural light emphasises its authenticity. Ten cameras were strategically placed around the Höss house, capturing the characters continuously. This setup not only created an unfiltered and true-to-life image but also immersed the actors in a specific reality TV atmosphere.     

Dressed in swimsuits, the Höss family is resting among idealistic untouched meadow greenery serenaded by blackbird songs and coos of woodpigeons. In the time of the Anthropocene marked by climate change and urbanisation, where access to such landscapes is limited for many viewers, this scene captivates the audience with the feeling of environmental nostalgia. Such feeling is ‘a desire of something that is unnameable and unreachable, momentarily present in the fleeing fragments.The Zone of Interest skilfully applies nostalgic imagery and sound design to evoke an emotion of ‘wistful attachment’, a sentiment towards the on-screen environment that many people may not experience anymore. This can be illustrated by the aesthetic resemblance of this scene with a recent TikTok trend, which spread into other social media platforms. Over 30 thousand users shared video collages featuring nostalgic landscapes accompanied by a sound recording called ‘Bird Sound- Pigeon’. Millions of TikTok users engaged with these videos, which were accompanied by hashtags like #nostalgia and #relatable. These heart-warming nostalgic images and sounds are particularly appealing when juxtaposed with the volume of horrific imagery on the same social media platforms posted from Gaza and Ukraine. Besides directly depicting the atrocities of war and implicating viewers in witnessing violence, these platforms have themselves become battlefields for informational warfare. Overwhelmed with such content, users retreat to the carefree memories in nostalgic collages accompanied by the woodpigeon coo as a symbol of tranquillity and the innocence of one’s childhood home and surrounding landscape.



We witness Rudolf Höss’ ‘attunement to the landscape’ through his affectionate encounters with other-than-human beings, particularly via birdwatching. For instance, he takes his children on a boat to teach them about storks. During a horseback ride with his eldest son, Höss hears a bird call, and despite the violent loud cries of SS personnel and prisoners in the background, seemingly unnoticeable to both of them, he identifies the distant bird as a Eurasian grey heron. When Höss finds out about his transfer to Oranienburg, he visits his horse at night to bid farewell, gently touching it and whispering, ‘I love you, my beauty.’ The animal seems to nod back and the mere act of this human-horse communication emphasises their relationship as one of ‘companionship and mutual affection.’

In addition to entanglements with landscapes and animals, The Zone of Interest includes plants as active subjects in the narrative. Rudolf Höss appears to be as passionate about approving the gas chamber plans as he is about commanding his fellow SS members to respect the lilac bushes and pick the flowers carefully. His wife, Hedwig Höss introduces their newborn daughter to her flowers and shows the kids how to weed the garden, cultivating a certain ‘attentiveness to vegetal life.’ Although the narrative doesn’t directly focus on it, it's evident that in Nazi environmental management, as well as their ideology the ‘desirables were to be cultivated,’ while ‘undesirables weeded out.’ When Hedwig’s mother comes for a visit, she proudly shows her how a piece of field was transformed into a garden. And for a few minutes, even the soundscape of the concentration camp gets mixed with the loud buzzing of bees. 

The relationships between the Höss family and other-than-human beings are not rooted in a sense of ‘othering’. They demonstrate curiosity and attachment not only to wildlife and pets, but also to the vegetal world and local landscapes. In contrast to The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017), a war drama directed by Niki Caro where Nazis extensively exert power and cruelty over animals and mirror human social-political structures onto non-humans, The Zone of Interest highlights a paradoxical kinship  between the protagonists and their environment. Despite Nazi ecology defining the environment as ‘an ethnic incentive and based on its benefit to man,’ the film’s visual narrative focuses on blurring human/nature dualities by situating them in a common category outside of Auschwitz. The outside and inside are also divided by the medium. The horrors from inside the concentration camp don’t have much visual representation; they manifest through darkness, the background crematorium smoke, and the soundscape from behind the wall. Yet, the Höss family seem uninterested and omit what is happening there. Like the grape vines that Hedwig planted to eventually cover the Auschwitz wall, the affective representations of other-than-human beings are mobilised to create a contrast to the ugly links of Höss’ utopia to the genocide happening next door. 


Some artefacts from inside the death factory still manage to seep outside in a series of eerie encounters: a worker fertilises Höss’ garden with the ashes from the crematorium, Rudolf Höss finds human remnants in the river while fishing with the kids, and Höss’ family dog seems to be constantly alert about the guard dogs from the other side of the wall. Despite Höss’ desperate attempts to keep the inside Auschwitz world distant, they are an integral part of it.


On the backdrop of the ongoing debate about the Anthropocene, climate change, and the struggle against the existing dominant power structures, The Zone of Interest employs nostalgic environmental imagery to mobilise its audiences’ senses and make them relate to the protagonists. The feeling of nostalgia, which Kitson and McHugh describe as an ‘enchantment with distance’ between something in the past and the present, has the potential to cultivate ‘sensory attunements to historic materiality.’ These attunements are developed further through the Höss’ family's kinship with other-than-human beings. Their explicit curiosity and attachment towards plants, pets, and wildlife create a vivid contrast to the Auschwitz atrocities they are involved in; however, they seemingly choose not to notice. By mobilising human/nature and inside/outside dualities to reflect on dehumanisation and genocide as processes rather than historical facts, The Zone of Interest blurs yet another duality – between then and now, thus creating an affective space for imagination and reflection among its audience.


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