Images of War: Zones, Death, Terror, Indifference

in 31st Camerimage - International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography

by Jakub Demianczuk

Commending the modest cinematography of Lukasz Żal in Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, Jakub Demiańczuk argues that countless images of war in the media, along with thousands of extras and special effects in cinema, have made it easier to pretend that death and terror doesn’t concern us.

At the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, only a glass pane separates visitors from the belongings left behind by the victims of the Nazi extermination machine. Here there are dozens of suitcases, hundreds of shoes, clothes, personal trinkets; crumbs of the murdered world. A transparent panel separates the present from the past enclosed in a terrarium of horror.

In The Zone of Interest, Rudolf Höss’s home is not even separated from Auschwitz by such an illusory barrier. A stone wall marks the boundary of the camp and obscures the view of the barracks, prisoners and guards, but it does not stop the incessant hustle and bustle of the camp reaching the property: the screams, the drill, the monotonous roar of the crematorium furnaces. It does not stop the smoke coming from the chimneys and the ashes falling on the manicured garden and swept sidewalks. Here is a substitute for paradise and hell on earth separated only by a few feet of concrete wall. Jonathan Glazer’s film, loosely based on Martin Amis’ novel, is one of the most striking depictions of indifference to unimaginable evil. The Höss family leads a life it considers normal. Its regular rhythm is determined by mundane daily activities: going to work, lunches, picnics by the river. Rudolf Höss treats overseeing the camp as a professional duty; his wife Hedwig seems even crueler in her indifference. Under her watchful eye, Auschwitz inmates bring in groceries, clean the house, tend the garden. And it is she who sees the neat little house as their place on Earth. When Höss is appointed deputy inspector of all concentration camps and moves to Berlin, Hedwig at her special request stays with her family in Auschwitz. Her mother, who comes to take care of the children, cannot stand the neighborhood of the camp. She secretly flees, because it’s easier not to hear or see the horror that takes place every day just beyond the fence.

Glazer puts viewers in the difficult role of observers, but in a way imposes Hedwig’s point of view on them. Just like her, we know perfectly well what is happening behind the walls of the camp. And like her, we see only fragments of the whole picture. The camp reality enters the idyllic world of the Hösses only in the form of the effaced, terrified prisoners doing housework. Łukasz Żal’s masterful cinematography, executed with cool precision, allows us to see the smoke from the crematorium, the steam billowing from the locomotive carrying a new transport of prisoners to Auschwitz, the military cars passing through the raised barrier. We hear shrieks, barking dogs and the deafening, dizzying roar of the furnaces. It is only the awareness of what went on in the death camps that allows us to imagine the full picture. The camera work in The Zone of Interest seems – perhaps coincidentally – a reverse of Mátyás Erdély’s cinematography for the Oscar-winning Son of Saul, directed by László Nemes. In Nemes’ film the camera did not leave the protagonist’s side, imposing his perspective on the audience, directly from the middle of the camp hell. Żal shows wider plans, static, often bathed in sunlight, but the effect of his work is even more shocking and disturbing, because it reminds us that very often we shut our eyes to evil. Also, what we see is not always what we should see. There is a counterpoint to the main narrative: some scenes show a Polish girl hiding fruits intended for prisoners in piles of gravel. Shot in negative, the sequences are both eerie and difficult to understand. In other words, if the good deed was incomprehensible in the terrifying reality of Auschwitz, it now seems downright incomprehensible.

Glazer doesn’t compare the Holocaust and the present day, but his film is also an indictment aimed at viewers increasingly indifferent to what is happening in Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan. We’ve become so accustomed to the images of war in the media that it’s becoming easier and easier to pretend that death and terror don’t concern us.

The images of war were also present in other films of the Camerimage main competition. In Filip (dir. Michal Kwieciński) – based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Leopold Tyrmand), Michał Sobociński’s camera focuses on the work of the title character, a Polish Jew who pretends to be French and works in a hotel restaurant in Frankfurt. But it doesn’t turn away from showing literal images of the war: the Nazis’ attack on a cabaret in the Warsaw ghetto, the execution of guest workers accused of petty crimes, the chaos after the Allied bombing. In Lee, the directorial debut of accomplished cinematographer Ellen Kuras, the camera takes the point of view of the title character, Lee Miller, a photographer who documented wartime events for Vogue and was one of the first people to capture in photographs the horrors of the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. Cinematographer Paweł Edelman is following in the footsteps set years ago by Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kamiński in Saving Private Ryan. He shows the war in shades of gray and rotten green, with the camera constantly following the action. At the same time, he skillfully reproduces Lee Miller’s on-screen cinematography, including the iconic picture in which the photographer takes a bath in Hitler’s bathtub.

Finally, in Napoleon (dir. Ridley Scott), the wars waged by the Emperor of the French resemble images for a Wikipedia entry: French Revolution, Egypt, coup d’état, coronation, Austerlitz, Russian campaign, exile on Elba, Waterloo. From battle to political deals, from victory to defeat, the more spectacular the event, the better for the show. The battle sequences are impressive, and the coronation scene, inspired by the paintings of Jacques-Louis David, is striking in its splendor and richness of detail – but all of it is given in telegraphic shorthand, without delving into historical details, at times treated rather casually. The war here is just another illustration to awe the audience, but not necessarily to make them feel any deeper emotions.

Against the background of the visually sumptuous films of this year’s Camerimage, Lukasz Żal’s cinematography for The Zone of Interest seems surprisingly modest, emotionally distanced. But its impact on viewers is all the greater. You don’t need thousands of extras and photorealistic FX to show historical truth on the screen. But it is necessary to make the audience think.

Jakub Demiańczuk
Edited by Steven Yates