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The excoriating comedy of Auschwitz Does the post-Holocaust generation still get the joke?


February 2, 2024   7 mins

The most-told joke about Auschwitz surfaces in different forms. As I first heard it while a teenager in “north London” — not just a cluster of adjacent postcodes, of course, but shorthand for a mindset that one kind of pundit loves to hate — two victims chuckle in heaven over the idiocy of an especially crass camp guard. The Almighty Himself overhears them and takes offence: “How can you laugh about such a hideous place?” “Well”, one of the murdered Jews replies to the bemused Lord, “I suppose you had to be there.”

The living numbers of those who were there diminish by the year. The New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany last week reported that the global total of Holocaust survivors now amounts to 245,000 souls, with a median age of 86. When the Third Reich fell, the vast majority were still small children; adult memory of the camps may soon disappear. At the same time, outright denial of the genocide of Jews or pseudo-scholarly scepticism gathers force. In December, one poll found that 20% of young Americans (18-29) agreed that the Holocaust was a myth, and fully 30% more neither agreed nor disagreed with such a claim.

So esoteric debates over the adequacy of Holocaust stories might benefit from an urgent reality-check. While critics parade their tender consciences over the missteps of this or that camp-themed novel or film, growing numbers believe that such fictions have little or no historical basis. This piece, like many others, hopefully (naively?) assumes a shared community of knowledge, and value. As, in different ways, do two recent works of Holocaust art: Jonathan Glazer’s new film The Zone of Interest, out in the UK this weekend, and its source material, Martin Amis’s decade-old novel of the same name.

Glazer’s German-language film is based only loosely on the book — it lacks any version of Amis’s three narrative voices for instance. Still, it shares with the original an urge to interrogate the ghastly parody of “ordinary” life created by and for the Nazi officials who oversaw the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in occupied Silesia and the industrial plant — the Buna Werke — manned by slaves from the camp. Glazer works with silence, sound and image; Amis with torrential but evasive human speech. But each creator rests implicitly on a context of understanding that gives meaning to their efforts to show how human beings dodge or disguise their own most atrocious acts. What happens when that context crumbles?

Evidently, Glazer has thought hard about his audience’s limits. He has, pretty much entirely, eliminated the grotesque humour that animates two of Amis’s three voices. Queasily, guiltily, readers may laugh with Amis’s Angelus (“Golo”) Thomsen as this sardonic, dandyish liaison officer schemes to bed Hannah, the buxom wife of camp commandant Paul Doll. Scornfully, haughtily, we laugh at the dim, pompous Doll himself as he frets over the “great national programme of applied hygiene” he manages in a deluge of stilted clichés (Doll, like all deadly bores, prides himself on being blessed with a great “sense of humour”). Only the plain, bleak words spoken by the anguished Jewish Sonderkommando leader Szmul — saddest of all among “the saddest men in the history of the world” — retain a link between language and reality amid this empire of ashen lies.

Glazer, however, seems to have no residual faith in voice of any kind. In place of the Amis shtick and patter, a tar-dark comedy that requires the knowing laughter of active moral agents, he stages long, near-wordless shots of the death camp’s bucolic outskirts. These tableaux are punctuated by humdrum chit-chat as the commandant and his wife — here given their actual names, Rudolf and Hedwig Höss — go about their mundane business with hell itself just across the fence. Filming around Auschwitz itself, in the family’s reconstructed villa, Glazer took the crew off the set. He installed fixed miniature cameras to catch the deeds and (few) words of his remarkable lead actors, Sandra Hüller and Christian Friedel, and the bullied staff they laconically boss about.

Here, words do not simply fail; they atrophy almost completely. In their place, Johnnie Burn’s extraordinary sound design and Mica Levi’s ominous music take us into the charnel house we never see — save as puffs of smoke or drifts of ash. Ambient birdsong and summer breezes chirp or whisper in the background. Barked commands, stray gunshots and distant cries of pain and fear apprise us of the unseen world beyond the watchtowers. Industrial blasts, groans and roars erupt like the death-agonies of the stricken earth itself. Complete silence partners empty black, then blood-red, screens.

It’s a riveting transformation. A work by the most joyously, shamelessly wordy of post-war British authors has given rise to a meticulously chill essay in fatal silence and infernal noise. Indeed, only one of Amis’s unsettling gags has made an almost-intact transition from page to script. Asked at the theatre whether he enjoyed a play, Höss says that he couldn’t stop thinking about how to gas the audience in a space with such high ceilings. Otherwise, Glazer offers not so much an adaptation as an inversion. “I need something more than words,” laments Amis’s moral anchor Szmul as he endeavours to fathom “the near-farcical assiduity” of German hatred. The frozen pastoral of Glazer’s imagery, and the chthonic horror of his sound, supply that something with imagination and ingenuity.

Yet Amis took that “near-farcical” aspect of Nazi theory and practice seriously — which is to say, comically. And he was right to do so. Edgy, curdled, slightly off like aged game, the humour of his The Zone of Interest tumbles the reader between complicity and revulsion. You can see why Glazer might decide to leave the treacheries of voice and tone aside and seek other, visual and aural, means to convey the kitsch barbarity of this petty-bourgeois idyll. By and large, the movie eschews the savage irony that gives Amis his narrative momentum. It does have some jaw-dropping fragments of dialogue — as when Hedwig escorts her mother proudly around the “paradise garden” that abuts the camp walls or, alarmed by news of her husband’s transfer to HQ, protests that “you’ll have to drag me out of here”.

Those are plausibly Amis-like moments. For the most part, Glazer lets a soundtrack from the intestines of hell challenge the sun-dappled prettiness of the camera’s truth-defying gaze. Still worried about misreadings, he finishes with another dialogue-free sequence. In a documentary flash-forward, staff clean up in the preserved execution chambers of the actual Auschwitz museum, and scrub corridors lined with piteous vitrines of the victims’ shoes. Despite his notable artistry, he doesn’t quite trust every viewer to get the point. For Amis, in contrast, the language of fiction — a language torn between laughing and screaming — must do all the moral work.

I talked to him while he was completing The Zone of Interest, and asked about the inevitable charges of bad taste that duly landed at his door when the novel appeared. “I don’t deny myself bitter mockery as one of the weapons of excoriation,” he explained. “It was a ridiculous ideology, with huge irrationalities within it” — absurdities mocked by the secret dissident Thomsen, and upheld by the bombastic toady Doll. As that plodding fusspot wrestles with the nightmare bureaucracy of mass corpse disposal (blow the Stücke up and body-parts hang in the trees; burn them 24/7 and the air-protection chaps complain about after-dark glow), Amis refuses to lend the Nazi machine the dignity of sense and reason, however perverted. Dogged excess always opens a door to comedy. In print, The Zone of Interest opts for “excoriation” through the means of the reductio ad absurdum built into the Nazis’ boundary-free death cult. “It was almost comedic,” Amis said to me. “How far from logic as well as from any possible value it was. The comprehensiveness of the descent into the embrace of evil — you might almost call it Germanic rigour. Once there, let’s do it in the German way.”

“In for a penny…”, he pondered, citing Macbeth. “‘I am in blood / Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ ‘Tedious’ is very good.” Thomsen, and behind him Amis, finds a sort of hideous hilarity in the sheer extremism of the genocidal-industrial complex. As he plots to seduce the heretically-minded Hannah, Thomsen tells her in a letter that future ages will consider the National Socialists “exotic and improbable as the prehistoric meat-eaters” — the unfeasibly gross T-Rexes of history. Much commentary on Glazer’s film has aligned its averted-eyes domesticity with Hannah Arendt’s familiar thesis about the “banality of evil”. Amis’s fiction, in contrast, does almost the opposite. In the fantastical floridity of its wickedness, his Auschwitz has — even the doltish Doll recognises this — “the decisive asset of being beyond belief”.

Amis’s humour, as ever, wields an ethical edge. Genocidal cruelty pursued via super-sized bureaucracy merits more than a platitudinous notion of everyday “banality” — and Arendt’s own thought about Adolf Eichmann took a subtler shape. In prose fiction, if not through the camera’s irony-free lens, only an epic absurdity might begin to approach this place where reason fails and all “whys” expire. (Amis’s afterword quotes Primo Levi, informed by an Auschwitz inmate shortly after his arrival that “Hier ist kein warum [Here there is no why].”)

Which is not to say that, as a novel, The Zone of Interest invariably hits its mark. Authorial insights — and stylistic tics — jarringly intrude on Doll’s ineffably dumb soliloquies (“There was I… offing old ladies and little boys”). Thomsen’s conspiratorial banter and badinage sit uncomfortably beside his wolfishly cynical collaboration with an evil he can see. The final chapters drop all grotesquerie to shift into downbeat post-war reflection: “The beginning of the German compromise with sanity. Social realism was now the genre.” They read like an anxious afterthought, in case the preceding antic scenes had felt too much like fun.

“Under National Socialism,” muses Thomsen after 1945, “you looked in the mirror and saw your soul.” Amis the novelist looked into that benighted glass and saw a defiantly incorrigible comedian who thought that scourging laughter not only could dare to breach the gates of hell, but should do so. To achieve that depends on a public able both to see the joke, and see beyond the joke. Perhaps, a decade ago, Amis was already mistaken in the underlying optimism that laid such a bet on a supportive context and community. Perhaps Glazer is correct to assume that parts at least of his audience would misjudge any irony and stumble over satire. Even on screen, however, The Zone of Interest takes it as read that we turn up because we know, and care. “You had to be there” — in spirit, in sympathy, in solidarity. But what of the ever-increasing millions who choose to stay away?


Boyd Tonkin is a journalist, editor, and literary and music critic, and author recently of The 100 Best Novels in Translation.

BoydTonkin

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Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
5 months ago

20% – 20% !!

For god sake if I stated the warranted kicking of each one of those pathetic kids is the ass followed by a proper b***h-slapping, it would take me several life times even if I stuck to my work 10 hours a day, six days a week… oh well, times awasteing,better get cracking!

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
5 months ago
Reply to  Matt Sylvestre

It may not be as bad as you think — there are reports that the questionaire was badly written, and many people who answered that the holocaust was a myth were not using ‘myth’ to mean “definition 2b — an unfounded or false notion” but rather definition 2a — a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone especially one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society”. See: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/myth

Nathan Sapio
Nathan Sapio
5 months ago

My lying eyes/ears I guess…

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago

Who’s going to open the batting on this one?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
5 months ago

Too difficult.

N Satori
N Satori
5 months ago

Well, we in the post-Christian West are partial to a bit of conscience-examining self-criticism (he who hath no sin upon him cast the first stone and all that) so a good starting point would be to ask yourself which group of people would you secretly like to see eliminated in order to make the world a better place for people like you?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

I can think of no one, what about you?

Glynis Roache
Glynis Roache
5 months ago

How about ‘the West’ in its entirety? I suspect that would be popular.
As an article that compares the methods available to a wordsmith in terms of dealing with difficult subject matter and those available to a film maker, I found this piece interesting. As it pertains to history, I found it disturbing. As I did my own reactions. I was torn between being horrified that a significant proportion of American youngsters did not even believe in the holocaust and a sinking feeling that we are yet again broadcasting the topic. Of course, we need to preserve history in order to learn from it. Not to mention, given the current situation re Israel, how this particular episode must have affected the deep psyche of the Jewish people. (The concept of intergenerational trauma and the idea that it could be transmitted epigenetically was initially stimulated by the holocaust, though it became more effective currency in other hands).
However, at the same time as recognising and acknowledging the need to remember, I had an unworthy surge of ‘why do we keep hammering the West like this?’ The worst excesses of the Germans, the darkest aspects of the British Empire, the exploitation of slaves in the USA, the marginalisation of the aboriginal inhabitants of USA, Australia, Canada etc. We seem to be endlessly revisiting/reviewing all of this, not only telling but formally teaching our children and our children’s children what blackguards we were, how we should be ashamed of our histories and our privilege, how we should exonerate ourselves by giving it all away to those who have much cleaner souls than we. Here, have our country. You deserve it. We don’t. You’ve seen the movie. 
     Am I ashamed of this inner conflict? I acknowledge it and I don’t like it. Yet it’s there. Must do better. But I can’t help thinking of the words of Shakespeare’s Mark Antony : ‘The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones …’
So it will be with the West.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Glynis Roache

Cecil Rhodes’s exhortation:-
“ Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life”, has been good enough for me, my children and grandchildren. Even my dogs get a sense of it!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Pure genius!
How very sad he died so young, he may even have kept us out of WWI.

Paul
Paul
5 months ago

You can’t help but expose yourself more and more, can you?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Paul

I am an Imperialist, do YOU have any objection?

Warren Francisco
Warren Francisco
5 months ago

If you’re an “Imperialist”, why do you constantly harp on the US when it acts imperiously on the world stage? Surely you’d admire our chutzpah. We inherited it from you!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago

‘You’ didn’t read the handbook properly, and thus will need to improve’.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago

You are an imperialist TODAY? Seriously? The (formal) British Empire was largely a millstone around the neck of this country, which did little if anything to help the lives of ordinary people. Many of our own subjects were stunted and malnourished as they joined up to fight the Boer War, and later, the Great War. British investments in the US and Latin America were far more lucrative than any in the (very undeveloped) formal Empire.

It couldn’t possibly last in any case – and didn’t. Eventually it was inevitable that continental size states such as some permutation of the US, China, Russia would supplant us. Germany and the US were outperforming us industrially in the 1890s.

Fortunately we didn’t on the whole try to do a France and hang on to far flung colonies.

And just look at the demographic legacy today…….

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

All too true, but just as you are nostalgic about Trotsky and Class War, so am I about the late Empire. (warts and all.)

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
5 months ago

I really don’t think it’s the Corbynite Andrew Fisher

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
5 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Did you get that quote from a drama on BBC radio 4 ?

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
5 months ago

My childhood dog was a dachshund (long -haired miniature) . Now I feel part German . The trauma !

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
5 months ago
Reply to  Glynis Roache

 “…the exploitation of slaves in the USA,”
The exploitation of slaves throughout the entirety of human history. Including to this day!

Glynis Roache
Glynis Roache
5 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

That is, in fact, the principle behind my entire premise. A premise which is, after all, nothing more than an interpretation/extrapolation of my own ambivalent reaction to the article.

Nathan Sapio
Nathan Sapio
5 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

You actually read that whole comment??

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
5 months ago

What language is this ‘essay’ written in?

Adam M
Adam M
5 months ago

Too wordy but I kind of get the point. He’s saying this film should have been more like ‘The Death of Stalin’?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  Adam M

No, he was saying what he was saying….. Which, you know, is complex! Not every thought can be expressed as a tweet…..

Ron Kean
Ron Kean
5 months ago

It’s one thing to sit alone and write a book. I don’t understand the motivation to produce a movie about this.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  Ron Kean

I’ve seen the film. Whilst “the banality of evil” phrase is written all over it, it might’ve been counter-stamped with “the banality of modern movie-making”

Claire D
Claire D
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Something as ‘Evil’ or transgressive as Auschwitz – This is already well defined and understood.
What the movie appears to do is state – Look at how evil it is – through the juxtaposition of kitsch parody of middle class German life with the real material horror just over the fence.
As if the most heinous crime was in breach of good taste, rather than indeed of murder.

Morry Rotenberg
Morry Rotenberg
5 months ago

Gobbledygook!

Nell L
Nell L
5 months ago

I saw the movie without having read Amis’ novel. But I have read Commandant Hoess’ autobiography and used it for my modern Western Civ history class. The movie is a perfect depiction of the Hoess family’s world as revealed in the autobiography but it leaves out some important facts. His female servants were not just Polish girls as stated in the film but were Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned at Auschwitz for their opposition to the Nazis. Hoess’ wife gloated about how kind the girls were to her children. Some have criticized the film for depicting the “ordinariness” of the Hoess family’s life, but those critics have it so wrong. What is depicted is how utterly evil Hoess and his wife were as they lived their “ordinary” life at Auschwitz. His wife Hedwig is as evil as her husband: enjoying her comfortable lifestyle, bragging about being the “queen of Auschwitz”, tending her beautiful garden as crematorium chimneys belch out human smoke, and snapping at her servants that she could have their ashes spread nearby if she wanted to.

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
5 months ago
Reply to  Nell L

I don’t know whether it is great, or terrible that people don’t get what a few us do @Nell.
Great, if we accept that global conditions permanently changed to prevent another Auschwitz.
Terrible if the changes are pipe-dreams.

David Gardner
David Gardner
5 months ago

Brevity is not tolerated at Unherd.

Nathan Sapio
Nathan Sapio
5 months ago
Reply to  David Gardner

Ha

Nathan Sapio
Nathan Sapio
5 months ago

Dear God, that was a difficult article…

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
5 months ago

I get this article having visited a preserved concentration camp (Bergen Belsen?) almost 40 years ago in the DDR.

All cleanly swept, windows cleaned, instruments in the mortuary/vivisection area neatly lined up on large, shiny tiled tables with spotless stainless steel troughs, oven doors in the crematorium oiled, carts to wheel around corpses in neat rows.

I couldn’t shake the visceral horror of the camp being ready for the next shipment.

You had to be there indeed.

Mark Melvin
Mark Melvin
5 months ago

Difficult subject matter to know how to respond here but I think I will look to find Amis’ book. a very different way of looking at things I suspect. I just happened to watch a ‘short’ on YouTube yesterday by Monty Python wherein John Cleese as SS man asked Michael Palin as prisoner and torture victim how to make a Nazi mad. “Stamp on his corns”, was the response. Ridiculous but made me laugh.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
5 months ago

The Holocaust happened before I was born but I have ever been deeply dismayed by its bleak reality. But when I survey our more recent past to the other genocides and mass moral outrages that came and went during my life, I wonder: why those real-time horrors transpired with so little intervention or even persistent collective memory? Those of us well-schooled in and outraged by historical Nazi atrocities beyond our temporal ability to undo did so little regarding Pol Pot in Cambodia or Rwanda that occurred in real time during our lives. A couple of movies and books but otherwise already forgotten.

Our moral indignation about the Holocaust failed to translate into agency on behalf of humans caught in genocides playing out before a mostly disinterested audience. It causes me to worry that, instead of inducing a sentinel mindset regarding present and future genocides, the Holocaust collective awareness–reiterated (justifiably) so often in movies, books, and academia–inadvertently and counterintuitively inoculated subsequent generations against the duty to address real-time genocide. By that I mean that perhaps in the process of watching something as powerful as Schindler’s List, e.g. we exit a theater so morally outraged that we are thoroughly convinced of our own personal righteousness; but that very conviction conveys on us a free pass that allows us to experience virtual virtue without the expensive and messy business of actual real-time moral intervention.

Jae
Jae
5 months ago

For another interpretation read “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.” Despite its huge success it got a mixed reception from some scholars, some saying it damaged Holocaust education, others claiming it introduced awareness in young readers.

I read it as an adult and wept.