‘The Zone Of Interest’ Is About Cognitive Harmony
2:16 PM EST on January 15, 2024
In a strange instance of coalescence, the other day I heard filmmaker Tony Gilroy say the following: “The noise of that dissonance between what people know is the right thing to do and what they do, is so loud—it’s never been louder in my lifetime. And it seems like a sound that should be going away, and it just gets increasingly deafening.” At the time, Gilroy was on the Unclear and Present Danger podcast talking about the moral quandaries that make up so many of his films. Of course, his directorial debut, Michael Clayton (tagline: The truth can be adjusted), was the first thing Gilroy thought of. There’s a scene in that movie in which the managing partner of a law firm admits, but not explicitly, that he knew from the start that their agricultural conglomerate client was producing carcinogenic products. “This case reeked from day one,” Sydney Pollack tells George Clooney’s fixer, who is having a crisis of conscience. “Fifteen years in, I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?” Because the podcast was recorded so recently, Gilroy connected the discussion to The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer’s feature about the dissonance of Rudolf Höss and his wife living out a bucolic paradise right next to Auschwitz. I had just seen The Zone of Interest the day before I rewatched Michael Clayton (following Tom Wilkinson’s death). In the end, it seemed as though my thoughts and Gilroy’s were moving along the same frequency, even though we had nothing to do with each other. Though I think that’s going around right now—the fact that we all kind of have something to do with each other despite ourselves.
“For me, this is not a film about the past,” Glazer told The Guardian of Zone Of Interest, his loose adaptation of Martin Amis’s novel of the same name, though Glazer skews more towards the real biography of the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz. “It’s trying to be about now, and about us and our similarity to the perpetrators, not our similarity to the victims.” I found Glazer’s film to be a bit of a failed project, which was disappointing considering how much I liked Under the Skin, which I mostly remember for its eerie imagery. There’s nothing particularly eerie about Zone of Interest, which is part of the problem. It’s explicit to the point that the wall surrounding Auschwitz—if not its smoke and its disembodied sounds—cuts through a number of scenes at the Höss house. The dissonance is made literal to the point that it fails to be one. I actually found the poster for the film more affecting—a void of black over the glowing garden. Zone Of Interest itself does little to abstract the overhanging darkness, but that is where all the richness exists. Apparently, Glazer saw his film as more of a study of madness than of the banality of evil. But just as Hannah Arendt’s now-overused phrase cannot be applied here, neither can madness. Madness comes from an inability to handle reality—what is going on here is the opposite. What is going on here is the sort of compartmentalization we see to this day.
What I am describing is a kind of cognitive harmony, as opposed to the cognitive dissonance Gilroy was referring to. American psychologist Leon Festinger came up with the theory of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s after realizing that people who were untouched by—but in the vicinity of—a disaster would invent worse disasters to come in order to justify their fear. These inventions seemed to keep the discomfort aroused by their inconsistent thoughts at bay. Expanding upon this observation, Festinger noted that people justified their stress either with rationalizations to support it or by actively avoiding anything to discount it (better known as confirmation bias). But then there were those people who avoided dissonance entirely by blindly believing whatever falsehoods they wanted to—this is what I would call cognitive harmony. “The biggest mistake of my life was that I believed everything faithfully which came from the top, and I didn’t dare to have the least bit of doubt about the truth of that which was presented to me,” Höss wrote to his children right before he was hanged. “In all your undertakings, don’t just let your mind speak, but listen above all to the voice in your heart.”
The best parts of Zone of Interest recall that black void in the poster, where one thing is said and the other hangs over it, inseparable but silent, almost invisible. The most notable of these scenes is when Höss (Christian Friedel) has just told his wife (Sandra Hüller) that, because his job has been relocated, they will have to move from their home abutting Auschwitz. He drops the news during a garden party like she will take it in stride. She doesn’t. He leaves while she has a meltdown. She follows him down to the dock he has escaped to. She is seething. Astride that little piece of wood on the moving water, the one in which her husband recently found what looked like a human bone, she lectures him about their dreams coming true. In the scene she uses the word “lebensraum” (it is translated to “living space”), which clanged in my ear. I remember very little of my high school history classes, but I do remember that German word, the one used throughout the Second World War, the one Hitler used to mean the colonizing and destruction of others and their land by a non-existent pure race he had concocted in his mind. Their life, as Höss’s wife sees it, is the manifestation of this ideal, it is lebensraum in practice. The Höss’s existence is perfect for being dictated by Hitler as perfection, which is to say it is the cake and the camp next door is the icing—without one you can’t have the other. There is no cognitive dissonance here; Höss’s wife co-exists peacefully with the great loss required for her personal gain. It is the belief inherent also in wealth, that it only means something when it is denied everyone else.
When Glazer says this is not a film about the past, there are very specific ways the present is different. When it comes to the Israel-Hamas war, most notably, the difference is not that there is more or less cognitive dissonance, so much as it is more instantaneous—a war unraveling online means all the psychological machinations unspool in real time, and you see rationalizations and confirmation biases crop up with the kind of immediacy we couldn’t see during Höss’s time. It’s like a case study before your very eyes. Perhaps what we see online now we would have seen then, too, had we been able to watch with the same collapsing time frame. But I think what’s louder these days is less dissonance than the troubling harmony that is also laid bare. What Gilroy describes as people knowing the right thing to do and doing the opposite, I question. I question whether some people do know. It’s the reason why a moment at the end of Zone Of Interest, when Höss wretches in recognition of what he’s participated in, rings false. Höss himself has admitted he did not question what he did.
“Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not,” wrote Arendt, “just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere.” It is stressful to sit in contradiction. And it is fascinating not only to see how cognitive dissonance is handled by people, but also who experiences it. You could argue neither Höss nor Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official whose trial Arendt was reporting on, ever really did. But then you see the regular people recruited at the time and you ask how they handled it. It required a lot—the appeal to the human desire to conform, to not appear weak, the appeal to the wartime division of us and them, to a deference to authority, to the separation of tasks (“merely” ghettoizing versus actually killing, for instance)—none of which sounds as distant as it should. These tactics don’t appear to have changed much even now. In a sense, the cognitive harmony of Zone of Interest is easier to understand. What is harder to confront, what is almost impossible to have compassion for, is the very human impulse not to sit in contradiction, to even sacrifice others to avoid it. Rather than demonizing that, as though we can somehow transcend it, it is important to look straight at it. To look straight at the blackness and contend with its void and how easy it is to fall into. Only then do we have the chance not to.