"The Zone Of Interest"/The Banality of Evil01-27-2024
Alissa Wilkinson reviews the new Jonathan Glazer film, The Zone of Interest, which is a full-on exploration of Hannah Arendt’s thinking around the banality of evil. The Arendt Center’s Virtual Reading Group will begin reading Eichmann in Jerusalem on Friday, Mar 1, 2024.
The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer’s first film in 10 years, is ostensibly based on a book: Martin Amis’s stomach-churning 2014 novel of the same name. But understanding the movie’s formal and thematic genius requires looking at it differently: as a sidelong horror-film adaptation of Hannah Arendt’s 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem, one that goes way beyond that book’s well-worn idea of the “banality of evil.” That phrase, lifted from Eichmann’s subtitle, furnishes most people’s entire Arendt knowledge base: the idea that evil presents itself not as a devil with horns and a pitchfork, but in seemingly egoless, “mediocre” men like Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Final Solution, who carry out unspeakable atrocities.
That’s not wrong, but it’s much too simple, verging on cliche — ironic, given Arendt’s warnings. In her reporting on Eichmann’s trial, Arendt noted how he spoke only in “stock phrases and self-invented cliches,” the kinds of euphemisms that Arendt said indicated a refusal to think for oneself. In this, Eichmann was a true company man; the Third Reich was notorious for inventing language and speech codes that made following the rules seem inevitable. The Nazi Sprachregelung, or its particular bureaucratic vocabulary, was euphemistic in the extreme. Killing became “dispatching”; forced migration became “resettlement”; the mass murder of the Jews became Eichmann’s “final solution.” When you call what you’re doing to millions of your neighbors “special treatment,” you don’t have to think about what it really is. You might even start to enjoy the challenge of doing it more officially.
This Sprachregelung is all over The Zone of Interest, in part because its characters don’t talk about murder or genocide, but also because Glazer — whose previous film was the brilliantly unsettling Under the Skin — replicates the characters’ internal distance through the movie’s images and sounds. The result is unsettling in the extreme. It takes a few minutes of watching to realize what, precisely, you’re looking at, and the nauseating shock at that moment packs a stronger punch than any horror movie I’ve seen this year. Here is the sunny, flower-filled, orderly front garden, in front of a well-appointed and tidy home in which a large, cheerful family lives. But wait; just beyond the yard is a tall gray cement fence with barbed wire on top, and smokestacks visible in the distance.