'Is it any wonder Oppenheimer and The Zone of Interest feel more like horror movies than war movies?'

March 9, 2024   7 mins

“I don’t like getting involved in a genocide-off,” said Jonathan Glazer about his film, The Zone of Interest, which offers a chillingly clinical, fly-on-the-wall view of the Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his family as they go about their daily lives in the shadow of the death camp. It is a haunting foray into what Glazer has called “ambient genocide”. And in interviews, the director has given off the cautious sound of a man expecting a backlash that never quite arrived; instead, the film has won prizes from critics’ groups across America en route to the Oscars. But as the nominations landed, there were nods, too, for the “easygoing genocide” of the Osage Indians in Martin Scorsese’s Flowers of the Killer Moon, as well as for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, the story of a man who spent much of his later career denouncing as genocidal the very nuclear weaponry he helped develop. It may not be what Glazer wanted, but a “genocide-off” is a pretty good description of this year’s Academy Awards.

None of these films takes genocide as their primary subject per se. Nor indeed have they been recognised as “genocide” films in the classic mould of Schindler’s List and The Killing Fields. In fact, their chief source of dramatic tension, and sense of artistic danger, comes from the decision to throw their dramatic weight behind the perpetrators and facilitators of mass murder rather than, as is more traditional, its victims and their champions. This has elicited some nervous gulps from critics. “Although its moral ambition is to honor the tribulations of an Indigenous people, it keeps getting pulled back into the orbit — emotional, social, and eventually legal— of white men,” wrote The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane of Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. “If [Oppenheimer] is three hours, I would like to add some more minutes about what happened to the Japanese people,” said director Spike Lee of Nolan’s film, while critic Manohla Darghis said The Zone of Interest “is fascinated with its villains, far more than it is with their victims, whose suffering here is largely reduced to room tone”.

Yet the convergence of all three films at the Oscars seems proof of something more than just the dictum “Hollywood loves a bad guy”. Historically, the subject has brought out both the best and the worst in Hollywood. From Lawrence of Arabia to Schindler’s List, with such lesser examples as Hotel Rwanda and The Promise, the genre is a bastion of “white saviourism”, in which an outsider comes to sympathise with the victimised group and enacts the audience’s own powers of empathy, which are rewarded as solution enough. We weep with Schindler because he did not do enough, but that is enough for us. “American movies, English books —remember how they all end?” asks Gamini, a citizen of Sri Lanka, in Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost. “The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That’s it… That’s enough reality for the West… Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit.”

If sanctimony is the genre’s besetting sin, complacency is its most likely outcome. If the backlash over Green Book’s Oscar win in 2018 marked the white-saviour trope for the scrap-heap, Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon administers last rites. After making the film, Scorsese and DiCaprio did indeed “hit the circuit” to reveal the changes wrought unto David Grann’s book, which focused largely on the efforts of one of the newly formed FBI’s most upstanding agents, Tom White, to solve the murders of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, originally to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio. “After a certain point, I realized I was making a movie about all the white guys,” said Scorsese. Instead, together with DiCaprio and screenwriter Eric Roth, he took the story away from the FBI agent, and let the focus fall on the marriage of Ernest Burkhart, one of the co-conspirators, and the Osage woman, Molly Kyle, whose property rights Burkhart and his uncle were trying to steal.

The violence is entirely devoid of the giddy glamour that marked Scorsese’s earlier work, such as Goodfellas. The murders are filmed with Weegee flatness, mostly in long-shot, the bodies slumping to the ground like the proverbial sack of potatoes. But perhaps most remarkable of all is the ending. After the convictions of Ernest, Hale and their co-conspirators, we cut to a Fifties-style radio revue, in which a troupe of voice actors and foley artists update the listeners back home on what happened next, including Scorsese himself, who steps up to the microphone to read Molly’s sad obituary, which omitted all mention of the Osage murders. As Scorsese told one interviewer. “Yes, I am part of the system. Yes, I am European American. And yes, I am culpable.” In other words: if audience empathy is not enough, then maybe transparency on the part of the filmmaker will do — alongside a weary acknowledgement of the limited efficacy of filmed entertainment.

A similar ambivalence marks Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. The film is written in the first-person, a device generally used by unreliable narrators gently veering toward crack-up. And the film plays, in its first half, as a high-end biopic, in which we witness the rise of a great man or woman who advances the cause of human progress in some way. But at the climax, Oppenheimer’s victory falls away from him, and the film executes a very Nolan-like pivot into a Kafkaesque court-room drama, in which all of Oppenheimer’s nuanced expressions of moral ambivalence about nuclear weaponry serve only to damn him. The movie sets a trap for its audience, just as Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), the story’s shadowy Quilty figure, sets a trap for Oppenheimer — engaging our sympathies so that we urge on Oppenheimer in the race against the Nazis, before pulling the rug out from under us. At the film’s central point, Oppenheimer’s triumph literally turns to nuclear ash in his hands: as he gives a jingoistic speech to his fellow physicists, the sound drops away, and in eerie silence, he imagines his audience ravaged by nuclear fire. Blink and you’ll miss it but there in the credits, listed as a “burn victim”, is Nolan’s own 18-year-old daughter, Flora, who happened to be visiting the set. “The point is that if you create the ultimate destructive power, it will also destroy those who are near and dear to you,” Nolan said. “This was my way of expressing that in what, to me, were the strongest possible terms.”

“Oppenheimer’s triumph literally turns to nuclear ash in his hands”

The use of sound to summon unimaginable horrors off-screen is the central device, too, of The Zone of Interest. Set in the shadow of Auschwitz, where the camp’s commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) and their children go about their daily lives, the film is a sustained exercise in moral disquiet void of catharsis. What we see is the Hösses going about their daily lives — the children wishing father “auf Wiedersehen” as he departs for work, Hedwig receiving guests for tea, tending to the garden, swimming in the pool — as, over the garden wall, we hear the screams of prisoners, gunshots, and the infernal rumble of the crematoria, an “ambient genocide”, in the filmmaker’s words. Like Oppenheimer, the film uses the disjunction between sound and image to convey the intense dissociation practiced by the Hösses to divorce the mundanity of their lives from the horror that surrounds them. But where they experience that dissociation as numbing, we experience it as nightmarish.

Only at the end, as Höss exits a conference in which the fate of the Hungarian Jews is decided, and finds himself convulsively retching in the stairwell, do his actions seem to catch up with him, or in any way correspond to the horror we feel. Glazer has said the scene was inspired by a similar scene at the end of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, in which the Indonesian butcher Anwar Congo, after merrily re-enacting his methods of murder for the cameras, is bent double with dry heaves upon trying to answer the question of why he killed his victims. No matter how dissociated from his own guilt he is, his body cannot lie. All three films — The Zone of Interest, Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon — are to varying degrees studies of dissociative guilt: men who have no idea how guilty they are, who find out only after the fact that they are damned. In Gitta Sereny’s biography of Albert Speer, the Dutch Protestant theologian W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft is quoted saying of the Holocaust that “people could find no place in their consciousness for such an unimaginable horror and that they did not have the imagination, together with the courage, to face it. It is possible to live in a twilight between knowing and not knowing.”

That twilight between knowing and unknowing is where all three films live, eat, sleep and breathe. You might be tempted to say that all three films deal with “white guilt”, and yet their audience ambit feels wider than that. It’s probably safe to say that, among the citizens of the industrialised West — certainly those with the freedom and inclination to watch Oscar nominees about mass murder — the great majority of us are more likely to find ourselves bystanders to genocidal or genocidal-adjacent policies than we are to find ourselves the victim of them. “It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of the victims,” writes Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. “It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.”

That is the unnerving thrust of all three films, but Glazer’s in particular. By the end of The Zone of Interest, the Höss’s garden wall is more than just a wall. It symbolises the bureaucratic structures that allowed the Nazis to see themselves as merely “getting on with the job”; or the gas chambers themselves, which Himmler intended to shield German soldiers from the damaging psychological effects of point-blank executions; or the “compartmentalisation” that allowed Oppenheimer to divorce the “technical success” of Trinity from its ghastly human effects. Is it any wonder Oppenheimer and The Zone of Interest feel more like horror movies than war movies? The absence of victims from both films is not some act of artistic negligence or authorial oversight, but a deliberate absence that haunts both dramas, ionically charging what we do see: technocrats haunted by their own eerie success, numbed by a sense of mission, dogged by miasmic guilt.

Every development in warfare since the Trinity Test — the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, ICBMs, proxy wars, drone technology, cyber-weaponry — has served to further shield civilian populations from the killing done in their name and the sacrifices that make countries so reluctant to enter into wars in the first place. “You cannot surrender to a Reaper,” points out Durham University professor John Williams. “Ambient genocide” comes very close to describing if not the modern state of war, then the state to which it secretly aspires. Most citizens of the US have little idea they are currently pursuing anywhere between five and 15 wars or shadow wars, depending on your definition. All of these killing zones are off-camera; all its kills are “clean”. If the government you have empowered with your vote enacts a policy which kills a group to which you bear no ill will, and of which you may not even have even heard, what exactly is the extent of your moral culpability?

Perhaps that is the wrong question — not “How guilty should you feel?” but “What does guilt, at that distance, even feel like?” Nothing like the war guilt of old, perhaps, but something far more fleeting, diffuse, pixellated. Something like the feeling you get from this year’s Oscar nominees.

Tom Shone is an American film critic and writer. The updated version of his book The Nolan Variations is out now.