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Imaging Auschwitz

Saskia Baron


Jonathan Glazer’s feature film The Zone of Interest (2023) is set to dominate the awards in 2024. His cameras follow the domestic life of a German family living in Poland during the Second World War. The father is a highly efficient bureaucrat, the mother runs an orderly household and takes pride in her children who enjoy playing in her beautifully tended garden. That garden shares a wall with the most notorious Nazi death camp, but the cameras never cross the wall. The Zone of Interest takes its Auschwitz-Birkenau setting and its title from Martin Amis’s 2014 novel. Amis shifted perspective between three imagined narrators – a camp commandant, an SS officer and a Sonderkommando (a Jewish prisoner forced to work in the gas chambers). Discarding that structure, Glazer focuses on the real-life Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his wife Hedwig, having extensively researched their time living next door to the camp.

The much-quoted dictum by the German philosopher Theodor Adorno that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ has been widely taken to mean that creating any art about the Holocaust serves to contribute to its barbarism. Over 400 feature films have been made that focus on the Holocaust, or Shoah, and Adorno’s warning makes discussion of those representations fraught. Are dramatic depictions and reconstructions necessary when we have memoirs, historical records and images from contemporary newsreels and photographs? Is it possible to depict dramatically what happened without descending into morbid fascination? On the other hand, whatever their imperfections, film dramas are a way of reaching an audience that may not watch documentaries or read the accounts of survivors such as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel or Viktor Frankl.  

The majority of Holocaust dramas focus on the fate of the victims; there is, however, a substantial tranche of films that focus on the perpetrators. The archetypal sadistic Nazi, revelling in their actions, is replaced in The Zone of Interest by another stereotype, the ‘desk murderer’, an epitome of Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’. In a promotional short accompanying the release of his film, Glazer outlines his intentions:

It was critical for the entire project to be as close to the truth as possible, to create the present tense as an experience and also allow the audience to project themselves onto these people and see themselves. It’s very easy to see these people committing genocide and think: ‘They’re monsters, that’s not me, I’m safe’. But they didn’t start as mass murderers, they started as boyfriend and girlfriend, having dreams about their futures. What they wanted for themselves is not that dissimilar to what everybody wants, and the whole idea of this project was to be confronted by a reflection of ourselves on some level.

Apart from extras in striped uniforms, quietly working in the garden, we do not see any of the millions of prisoners who were used as slave labour or killed shortly after arrival. Glazer decided to convey life inside the camp by an omnipresent soundscape. We hear shouts, gunshots, barking dogs, train brakes, footsteps, screams and the industrial thrum of the crematoria. As the director explained to the Guardian: ‘We already know the imagery of the camps from actual archive footage. There is no need to recreate it, but I felt that if we could hear it, we could somehow see it in our heads.’ He has made a film of clues rather than statements, hints rather than explanations, avoidance rather than explicitness. And he can do this because our cultural understanding of how Auschwitz worked, how it looked and sounded, has already been laid down and defined by films. They have constructed our imaging, our imagining. We don’t need to be told about the millions killed by the Glazer film; we don’t have to be shown the crematoria. We can ‘read’ his film precisely because earlier movies have already enabled us to construct an inner library of images. But do we really have authentic imagery in our heads, to match up with the soundscape created in Glazer’s film?

There is no moving film footage of Auschwitz (a complex of camps including Birkenau) when it was in operation – from the period The Zone of Interest covers. The only authenticated images of the extermination process are four blurry photographs taken covertly by a Sonderkommando and smuggled out to the Polish resistance in September 1944. The photos are taken from inside Crematorium V looking out, framed by the gas chamber’s doorway. They show prisoners undressing outside in the open, and then show their bodies, hauled away to be burnt on a pyre. All the other photographs that have become the familiar images of Auschwitz when it was functioning – Hungarian Jews being selected at Birkenau, haunting prisoner ID photos and grim photos of the victims of medical experiments – were taken or commissioned by the Nazis with no intention of them being used to document these actions, nor were they meant to be preserved. The Germans detonated the gas chambers and crematoria and tried to destroy as many records as possible before they fled the camps.  

The first moving film footage of Auschwitz-Birkenau dates from after the camps’ liberation by the Red Army on 27 January 1945. The Russians did not have a camera crew with them, but over the days and weeks that followed, they filmed the images that ever since have been used in documentaries: the piles of corpses, the skeletal survivors staggering in mud, the child prisoners stretching out their arms to show tattooed ID numbers. This footage is mute – the Russian cameramen did not have the equipment to record sound.

Specialising in the historiography of the Holocaust, Professor Dan Stone describes this Russian film as ‘a reconstruction’, used initially for propaganda purposes as newsreel aimed at ‘incensing the Soviet people against the Germans’. Later, the footage would be used at the Nuremberg trials as evidence. Stone points out in The Holocaust: An Unfinished History (2022) that, for the Russians, there was little ideological use in the fact that the victims were predominantly Jews. The Soviets wanted to represent Nazism’s victims as ‘people who had died in the name of the anti-fascist cause – a notion that was incompatible with the fact that the Nazis’ primary victim group was targeted on racial grounds.’

The challenge of how to represent on film what had happened at Auschwitz – both authentically and effectively – continued. The first dramatic film made on site, The Last Stage (1948), was Polish and funded by the state cinema agency Film Polski. It was scripted and directed by Wanda Jakubowska, a Polish communist who had herself been a political prisoner at Auschwitz and who returned in the summer of 1947. Former inmates joined her to work as extras, but the central roles were played by actresses, made up and lit like 1940s movie stars. 

Jakubowska stayed in Höss’s former home  (recreated in Glazer’s film) while directing her grim but ultimately stirring tale of women prisoners, from all nations, uniting in solidarity against the fascist Nazis. The Last Stage established many of the tropes that would become familiar in future film representations of the camp: the orchestra of prisoner-musicians playing as the inmates march to work, sadistic Nazi guards revelling in their job, a suicidal inmate throwing herself against the electrified fence. And yet the director holds back on horror – for example, on the ramp where some of the arrivals are selected for work, the fate of the majority is indicated by a discreet cut to a smoking chimney. 

Jakubowska faced some criticism in Poland because The Last Stage portrayed a few Polish characters negatively, as when a prisoner claims to be a doctor in order to steal medicines and ingratiates herself with the kapos. Privileged inmates, kapos, were chosen from among the ranks of common criminals or political prisoners. Predominantly Polish, some of them tormented the Jewish prisoners as sadistically as the Nazis. In 1948, when the film was released, Poland did not want to be reminded of its own collaborators or the country’s long struggle with antisemitism.

The Last Stage is not well known outside Poland, unlike Holocaust movies such as Schindler’s List (1993) or Sophie’s Choice (1982). It was barely seen in the West after its initial screenings (the film was restored in 2020 for re-release). However, scenes from Jakubowska’s dramatic feature film were cut into Alain Resnais’ highly acclaimed 1956 documentary on Auschwitz and the Nazis, Night and Fog. A train, billowing steam, arrives at night. Nazi soldiers are silhouetted against the white smoke, rifles ready to meet the new arrivals. Resnais edited in Jakubowska’s staged, dramatic images, giving them the same verité status as newsreels made by the Allies and Soviets. George Stevens also used images from the Polish drama as if they were newsreel in his 1959 film, The Diary of Anne Frank.

Films continued to be made at Auschwitz by Polish directors, most notably Andrzej Munk’s The Passenger (1963), the story of a Nazi woman guard encountering a prisoner many years later. The Polish authorities that oversee Auschwitz laid down strict criteria when they allowed filming there, for example, for the American TV drama series War and Remembrance (1986). At a press conference, its producer admitted, ‘If I had had one word [in the script] about Polish antisemitism [during the war], we never could have shot there.’ Once the most expensive TV production in history, War and Remembrance rebuilt one of the destroyed crematoria using the original Nazi blueprints – a few hundred feet from its original location.

A few years later, the authorities at Auschwitz allowed another American production to be filmed on the site. Triumph of the Spirit (1989) is the tale of a Greek Jewish boxer who survived the camps by fighting rounds for the Nazis’ entertainment. When it opened, I interviewed the film’s producer for the BBC. He told me that while shooting at Birkenau they had explored the settling ponds where ashes from the crematoria had been dumped. ‘We started to dig, just casually at first, and then we started to unearth large pieces of bones, cooking utensils, prayer books and twisted silverware.’ I also interviewed the director, who proudly displayed to our camera the fork he had taken home to LA from Auschwitz as a souvenir. The script of Triumph of the Spirit never overtly identifies its Greek protagonists as Jewish. As the producer told me, ‘I don’t think I had to say anything about them being Jews, because I did want it to be universal… I have been not only producing but also marketing films for 20 years, and in some cases the world does not want to see films about Jews.’

Auschwitz became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979; these days, no film set reconstruction or rummaging in the grounds for mementos would be permitted. Negotiating access, even for factual filming, has been sensitive. When I directed a documentary for Channel 4, Science and the Swastika (2001) about Nazi eugenics and medical experimentation, permission to film at Auschwitz was given under the clear understanding that there would be no mention of Polish antisemitism. Since that aspect of the Holocaust had no place in the documentary I was making, agreement was straightforward, even if filming at Auschwitz-Birkenau was not. The site is open seven days a week, and shooting without visitors wandering into frame is a challenge. In a barrack unlocked just for us, I interviewed Wilhelm Brasse who, as a young photographer, was condemned to Auschwitz because of his work with the Polish resistance. He survived by taking ID photos, and images of Josef Mengele’s notorious human experiments. Asked if he’d carried on working as a photographer after liberation, he told me that he’d never been able to look down a lens again, haunted by the images he’d taken.

There are two sequences in The Zone of Interest where Glazer bends his rule about not entering the prisoners’ world. In relation to the first, he has talked in interviews about how during production he despaired at the ‘impossible’ bleakness of the subject matter. His Polish fixer introduced him to an elderly woman, Aleksandra Kołodziejczyk, who told him about her missions as a teenager working for the Polish resistance. She lived near the Jawiszowice coal mine, a sub camp of Auschwitz. As well as conveying messages, she described how at night she had gone to sites where prison labourers slaved, and had left food for them to find in the morning. ‘I was looking for the light somewhere,’ Glazer said, ‘and I found it in her. She is the force for good.’

That Glazer chose a non-Jewish Polish girl to perform the only act of kindness and heroism in The Zone of Interest  may or may not speak to the influence that present-day Auschwitz authorities exert on filmmakers given any kind of access to the site. The girl’s appearances are shot with a thermal, night vision camera, which means that the very texture of the film changes from colour to an eerie monochrome. Quite unexpectedly, we are presented with a puzzling, almost ethereal, figure whose carefully studied face is almost ‘bleached out’. This is not just a function of the thermal camera needed for a night shoot without lighting; it is an explicit directorial decision. It adds a sense of mystery and, indeed, beauty to the movie, especially when we see the girl return home and the film switches to colour. In a further piece of ‘artistic licence’, the girl picks out a song she has found on the piano – written by Joseph Wulf, a German-Polish Jewish prisoner who survived Auschwitz. It’s the only time Yiddish is represented in The Zone of Interest – captions translate the words of ‘Sunbeams’, the song the Polish girl plays although we do not hear the lyrics. The real Aleksandra Kołodziejczyk did not, in fact, find a scrap of paper with Wulf’s music and words written on it when she left food for the prisoners. Wulf himself made a recording of ‘Sunbeams’ after liberation. He went on to commit suicide in 1974, despairing of his long campaign to bring justice to ‘mass murderers [who] walk around free, live in their little houses, and grow flowers.’  

Glazer’s camera does once more break his rule on not entering the prisoners’ world – to go inside Auschwitz in the final sequences of The Zone of Interest. The actor playing Rudolf Höss stares directly at the camera from a grand hall in Berlin: there’s a dissolve into darkness that reveals the spyhole on a door opening into the museum that the camp is today. We see its staff preparing for the thousands of visitors Auschwitz gets every year. They polish the glass display cases filled with preserved hair, clothes, suitcases – some of the plunder that was stripped from the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz during the war. Although striking, this final sequence in the museum has the feel of an installation, a kind of staged, immersive performance artwork. By choosing to end on the carefully preserved displays, Glazer tethers his film to the past. If he really wanted his film to make present-day audiences see themselves reflected ‘on some level’, perhaps it would have been better to break out of rather than break into Auschwitz, to remind us of the world’s growing number of makeshift camps and repurposed barracks where we consign desperate people who we do not want in our countries.  

Saskia Baron is a documentary filmmaker known for Moving Pictures (1990), Science and the Swastika (2001) and Reputations (1994).