The most chilling moment in Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah is a slow tracking shot approaching the gates of Auschwitz, moving toward the ruins of the death camp with the ineluctable steadiness of a Nazi transport. Because most contemporary images of the death camps had been produced as Nazi propaganda, Lanzmann chose to situate his movie entirely in the present, so that while we watch survivors recounting their own detailed memories of the past, we see only the remnants of the Third Reich that still existed when he made the movie in the 1970s and ’80s: the buildings still standing, the tracks and highways that still carried cars and trains. The movie is largely, monumentally, a work of oral history, but its history is physical as well.
Steve McQueen’s Occupied City, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last week, seems to take many of its cues from Shoah, not least its imposing length (even though, at a shade over four hours, McQueen’s running time is less than half of Lanzmann’s). McQueen likewise shoots only in the present tense, juxtaposing images of COVID-era Amsterdam with accounts of the Nazi occupation of the city. But four decades after Lanzmann collected his testimonies, there are few survivors left to tell their stories, so McQueen turns to another, less fragile source: architecture. Drawing on Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940–1945, a book by his partner, the Dutch historian and filmmaker Bianca Stigter, McQueen effectively approaches the exploration of history as a house-to-house search. As the movie shows us children skating on frozen rivers and senior citizens getting the jab, a narrator reads off a list of addresses with almost metronomic regularity, each name and number followed by a brief account of what took place there. Some buildings were Nazi headquarters, some home to the resistance; this is how many Jews were taken from this home and what camps they died in, these are the collaborators who took their places.
Often, Melanie Hyams’ dispassionate narration ends with a simple declarative phrase, “demolished,” and we realize that not even all the buildings have survived the decades. (Whether they were torn down as an act of liberation or historical erasure or simply fell prey to the cycles of urban renewal is never elucidated.) The grim litany recalls the climax of Tom Stoppard’s play Leopoldstadt, in which a character reads the dates and causes of death for the descendants of a large Austrian Jewish family. The entries converge with dreadful regularity on a single word, repeated until it becomes almost unbearable: “Auschwitz.”
The destruction of buildings doesn’t carry the same terrible weight, and the way Occupied City is organized prioritizes a sense of scale over creating connections: The entries don’t proceed chronologically, which would give us a sense of how the occupation evolved over time, or geographically, at least in any obvious sense, so that we might understand how one location’s proximity to another affected what transpired there. Though McQueen is now the Oscar-winning director of 12 Years a Slave and Widows, he got his start in video installations, and Occupied City feels like a project that might have worked better in a gallery context (or, indeed, as a book), than the linear format of a feature film. But like Stigter’s documentary Three Minutes: A Lengthening, it’s an attempt to find a new way of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, as the people who remember it firsthand disappear.
Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, which also just premiered at Cannes, is a work of fiction, but it proceeds from a materialist impulse similar to Occupied City’s, even though its subject is not the victims of the Holocaust but its perpetrators. Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Martin Amis, who died of cancer on the day the movie premiered, the movie jettisons most of its plot and defictionalizes its central character, Nazi officer Rudolf Höss (named Paul Doll in the book). Amis’ prose is lush and ironic, but Glazer’s movie is shot with a radical austerity that recalls the aesthetic privations of the Dogme 95 movement. After a prologue in which Mica Levi’s roiling soundscape of a score cascades for several minutes over a black screen, Glazer—who spent 10 years developing The Zone of Interest after his eerie sci-fi movie Under the Skin—introduces us to the world of Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) with an idyllic long shot of the family lounging by the side of a river, his beefy chest shining in the sunlight. The digital cinematography is harsh and glaring, so sharp that it rakes at your eyes. Already, we’re seeing more than we want to.
The knowledge of who and what Höss is enters the movie slowly, the first sign being when he returns from a trip and hands his boots to a servant in gray coveralls, who scrubs them clean as the water is tinged with blood. The Hösses live mere feet from the death camp, which looms just behind their house, but they seem intent on cultivating the illusion of a normal bourgeois life. Hedwig luxuriates in her immaculately landscaped garden, built around a miniature swimming pool, and even notes that she’s planted ivy by the Auschwitz walls to make them less noticeable. But when her Jewish servant makes a minor misstep, Hedwig is quick to remind the woman that her husband could have her ashes scattered in a field. Mass slaughter has become such an unremarkable part of the Hösses’ lives that Rudolf can discuss the plans for a more efficient crematorium as if he’s picking out bathroom tile.
With one pointed exception, Glazer keeps the death camp itself entirely offscreen, but the plumes of smoke in the air and regular sound of gunfire mixed with screams leave no doubt as to what’s happening inside—or indeed, what the Hösses and their kind know about it. Rudolf bathes in fresh-flowing water in a moment reminiscent of the pastoral kitsch of German mountain films, the genre in which Leni Riefenstahl specialized before she became Hitler’s favorite propagandist. But his foot catches something in the riverbed, and he pulls up what looks like a human jawbone.
In the Hösses’ house, the movie keeps us at an almost mechanical distance. The interiors of their house were shot with cameras set in fixed positions and operated by remote control; scenes that took place at the same time were filmed simultaneously, as if Glazer were staging an experimental theater piece or just assembling the world’s biggest ant farm. There are no close-ups to generate empathy for the Hösses, or even allow them to become characters—there’s no lustily sneering baddie like Mads Mikkelsen in Cannes’ other Nazi movie, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. But even so, the situations in which they find themselves can feel jarringly familiar. Take away the fact of what Rudolf Höss does for a living, and the scene when he tells his wife he’s being transferred for work plays out as it might with any middle-class couple. When he comes up with a plan for the rapid deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews, he can’t wait to call home, swollen with pride that the operation has been named for him. Domestic affairs are seamlessly melded with Nazi ideology. When Hedwig tells Rudolf she’s become too attached to her spacious new home to follow Rudolf to his post, she does it in terms Hitler would have approved of. “We’re living the way we always dreamed,” she tells him. “This is our Lebensraum.”
Glazer says he wanted to portray not just the banality of the Nazis’ evil but, to use a less well-trod phrase of Hannah Arendt’s, their “thoughtlessness”—the ability to devise and carry out their plans without thinking about them except in the most commonplace of terms. (A good Nazi, Höss refers to the human beings whose murders he is devising solely as “pieces.”) But what the characters in The Zone of Interest demonstrate is less like Arendt’s “inability to think” and more like a refusal of thought. A moment in which Rudolf suddenly seems to retch up his own guilt—much like the Indonesian mass murderer in the documentary The Act of Killing—makes clear that the poison of his actions has accumulated in his body, if not his mind.
On the tracks that lead to Auschwitz, a young woman was caught earlier this year smiling for a photograph with the site of one of history’s great atrocities as a backdrop. After the resulting social media uproar, she followed up with a tweet: “I’m famous y’all.” The Nazis’ buildings still stand, but they can’t speak for themselves.