word craft


See it. Listen to it.

I don’t con­sid­er myself deeply knowl­edge­able about movies. I enjoy the good ones and am bored with the dull ones. I find most films adapt­ed from nov­els not near­ly as ful­fill­ing as the text narratives. 

The films I find most intrigu­ing are the ones that tell a sto­ry in a cin­e­mat­ic way. I love a film like Chaplin’s Mod­ern Times because it tells its sto­ry in terms of what one sees with­out words. To watch the lit­tle tramp on an assem­bly line allows us to see a life—I think—in a unique way. What most inter­ests me about movies is the dif­fer­ent ways a sto­ry is told—text as con­trast­ed with film.

I recent­ly saw the movie called Zone of Inter­est, (based on a book by Mar­tin Amis) which is one of the most unusu­al films I have ever seen, and, not beside the point, one of the most dis­turb­ing. It has been nom­i­nat­ed for 5 Acad­e­my Awards, includ­ing Best Pic­ture and Best Director.

The sto­ry is about the Ger­man Com­man­dant [Rudolf Höss] of the noto­ri­ous Auschwitz con­cen­tra­tion camp in Poland dur­ing World War Two. The com­man­dant and his wife, Hed­wig, and their chil­dren are liv­ing a “nor­mal” mid­dle-class life just behind the wall of Auschwitz. We see the walls, and the barbed wire above the walls. 

The Zone of Interest

Their fam­i­ly life is in no way unusu­al, except they are liv­ing right next to hor­rif­ic atroc­i­ties. 1.1 mil­lion peo­ple were mur­dered next door. Very slight­ly do we under­stand that these peo­ple do know what is hap­pen­ing, but just bare­ly. Rudolf Höss, who runs the camp sweet­ly reads to his chil­dren at night. An old­er broth­er locks his younger broth­er in a green­house. It is inno­cent fun until the old boy makes the hiss­ing sound of poi­son gas. The wife mod­els a fur coat tak­en from a pris­on­er who has just been murdered. 

Most pow­er­ful­ly, as we watch the ebb and flow of the fam­i­ly’s ordi­nary life, we hear what is hap­pen­ing beyond the camp walls: screams, gun­shots, com­mands, “Go drown him in the riv­er.” At a dis­tance, we see smoke ris­ing from the oven smoke­stacks in which thou­sands of mur­dered peo­ple are being cre­mat­ed, at times two thou­sand an hour. We see a pass­ing train that con­tains humans being led to slaugh­ter. We don’t see the peo­ple, just the train.

The film is about the capac­i­ty of peo­ple to ignore — or so they act — the ter­ri­ble things that are being done to their fel­low human beings. We are not shown the ter­ri­ble things, rather we hear them and see the evi­dence from a dis­tance. It shows us that even as we con­tin­ue our lives, we often are, at some lev­el, aware of what is hap­pen­ing and choos­ing to ignore it.

The film, unlike a writ­ten sto­ry, shows and sounds how evil hap­pens — by act­ing as if it did not exist. It’s an extra­or­di­nary piece of nar­ra­tion in which mere words won’t do.

See it. Lis­ten to it.

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