Death Camp: The Holocaust Hangman’s Humor

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

So, there we are a little bulb of life and light all lit up in the Christmas night, engulfed by darkness all around us, full of manufactured hope and questing for the gift-wrapped meaning that comes with faith and long suffering, singing O Tannenbaum once per year, all helio- and ego-centric.  Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy streaming from Spotify. Then the morning kicks you in the head, as Rod Stewart would say, and at the door stoop is a science magazine that tells you there may be a billion other Earths (other Tannenbaums) “in our galaxy alone.”  There may be a billion galaxies in our universe, one of many universes we’re told by the eggheads.  Life is rife, they crow, but we volk vant purpose, teleology, a sign that Kant was not just categorically crazy.  Voltaire. Candide. If God did not exist, then it would be necessary to create one. For monsters are everywhere.

In the West, our own Origin story, shared by the Abrahamic religions, has us believing zat God was a miserable prick we won’t miss now that Nietzsche popped two in the back of his skull.  The proud and the loud Satan was His favorite angel. but he was cast out of Heaven because he refused to bow before the newly created Adam and incites humans to sin by infecting their minds with waswās (‘evil suggestions’), which sounds an awful lot like Bill Clinton’s is-is, when you think about it.  Satan’s suggestions to Eve led to her eating from the sexual knowledge tree, getting herself preggers by Satan, cuckolding the sleeping Adam, and producing the first human born, Cain. If you are keeping score of such things, recall that Cain was a murderer. That’s what we trace back to. In the Vest. Lest we forget.

We really are quite mad. Ve komm up mit the craziest theories of why we are here und vie we are “smarter than the average bear,” to quote the former manager of the Yankees, who had an epic meltdown in 2004, losing to the BoSox, stupidly taunting Pedro Martinez with “Who’s your Daddy?” und having A Rod swat, like a sissy, at the ball.  Ze Nazis hat der ‘cosmic ice theory’. Was ist das? Hier:

“The cosmic-ice theory…holds that the earth was created when a frozen comet the size of Jupiter collided with the sun. During the trillennia of winter that followed, the first Aryans were cautiously moulded and formed. Thus, Onkel, only the inferior races are descended from the great apes. The Nordic peoples were cryogenically preserved from the dawn of terrestrial time – on the lost continent of Atlantis.  [Amis, The Zone of Interest, p. 224]”

We really are quite mad.

And then it gets tricky when we consider this appeal to racial superiority.  Zese Nazis.  Trickier still when we are forced to consider that the Jews make a similar claim ven they anoint themselves the Chosen People. Then we begin to get a West Side Story vibe (vich was vitten by a Jew, Bernstein, who should have won the Oscar this year).  Supposedly, God said to the Israelites that the covenant of chosenness was dependent on their accepting the Mosaic Decalogue, which begin, “Thou shalt not kill.” Oy veh.  How do today’s Israelites get around this failing as they raise Cain in Gaza?  Or raze Gaze mit Cain.

Dunno. It’s a toughy. I love Jews, especially American Jews, and Saul Bellow most of all, so let’s go with the Israelites introjected (Freud’s term, and he was a Jew) the Nazi cosmic- ice theory and see themselves now as the Golem Heights.  This introjection raises another question that only Jewish prophets could answer: If dey hate Die Nazis zo much, dann how komm circumcision makes the peenie look like a teeny German helmet, nicht? Is this all some kind of Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic — thesis and antithesis working its way toward synthesis, while the rest of us watch helplessly? Oy. Und Ja vohl!

Crazy comes at me as I consider how to respond to the 2024 Oscar-winning film (Best International Feature Film), The Zone of Interest, written and directed by Jonathan Glazer. The credits allude to Martin Amis as co-writer, but his presence in the film is more of an inspiration than a meaningful interpretation of his novel by the same name. IMDB succinctly sums up the storyline: “Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his wife Hedwig strive to build a dream life for their family in a house and garden beside the camp.” Glazer derives from Amis, who, in turn, acknowledges dozens of sources for his account of the ‘true’ story. Glazer’s film is listed on IMDB as drama, history, and war. But you could not get away with calling Amis’s novel any of those, without adding black comedy, provided by the sadistic tormentors.

The Zone of Interest begins and ends with black screens with eerie music playing. Glazer opted to not indulge in camp.  Instead, the film comes across as cinema verite. He wants the viewer to experience the clear dissociation of the humans (sick) living with edenic disregard next to Auschwitz, from which occasional muffled screams, shouts and gunshots are heard. The film could be from a home camera.  But there is immediately something bizarre about the environment. Even before the viewer sees the barbed wire walls and towers. The long narrow yard has the feel of an artificial environment. There is a pool where children quietly swim and around which adults silently lounge, perhaps reading Die Sturmer (“an artist’s impression of (as it might be) Albert Einstein rutting against a somnolent Shirley Temple…” -Amis, TZOI, p. 235)

And much of the yard is a flower garden. Then, suddenly, at one point, the camera follows a prisoner gardener who comes across a patch of ash presumably fallen from the chimneys next door, which he then incorporates into the flower beds. The flowers from then appear sinister, as when you start noticing the faces erupting from the orchids in The Little Shop Horrors (1960). A disturbed mind has me imagining a floral garden with five million faces — I mean, six. Who are these fuckers?  Why, they must be Hannah Arendt’s banality-of-evil fuckers. And the constant gardener must be making happy lemonade out of the bitter lemons that fell from the sky.

This “zone of interest” is, of course, the main actor.  Auschwitz, the death camp, is the co-star. The film lists the following as stars: Christian Friedel as Rudolf Höss, Sandra Hüller as Hedwig Höss, and Johann Karthaus as Claus Höss.  But they are mere props, it seems, for the uncanny space possessed by Death itself. Everything is haunted or possessed by the devil’s work.  Daily banality goes on: In an opening scene, Hedwig calls all the prisoner help into the dining room and lays open a bag of silken undies taken from Auschwitz women and has them rummage for their size, “one each, please.” Hedwig is herself gifted a fur coat. There is lavish excitement over jewels, a diamond found in the toothpaste! (“How clever do you have to be?” exclaims a friend of Hedwig.) Meanwhile, the menfolk, often consisting of SS officers, sit around the dining room discussing future plans for the camp:

SANDER: The other side of it is the next * chamber. In here is the next load ready to burn, once the pieces in here. (points) Have been completely incinerated.

RUDOLF : In how long?

SANDER: Seven hours. Four to five hundred at once.

PRUFER:  Closer to five hundred.

SANDER: (points)  So, once that’s happened, you close this chimney. Then simultaneously open the next. The fire will follow the air, through this baffle of course, into this chamber and burn this load.

Easy peasy.  No one queasy.  The commandant celebrates his birthday, mirth is had all around. The commandant reads “Hansel and Gretel” to his sleepy children. And so it goes. The only dramatic tension comes when Rudolf is informed that he may be transferred and is upset by this news, not wanting to leave his beloved home and garden and family, not having finished his work at Auschwitz. Banality up the yin-yang. Director Glazer clearly feels such envisioning of what the master race gets up to on any given work day is sufficient to horrify.

This is in sharp contrast to how Martin Amis handles events in his novel, The Zone of Interest. Black humor written by a master stylist who has come under the influence of such writers as Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabakov, and John Updike. Absurdity, Alienation, Comic Derision, and Carnality.  Updike probably seems strange to include here until you remember his Rabbit books and the carnal perceptions of “A&P.” Indeed, Amis’s novel is, at time, fiendishly funny, outrageously visceral. Amis chooses to tell the same tale from the points of view of three narrators: Angelus Thomsen, the officer; Paul Doll, the commandant; and Szmul Zacharias, a Jewish Sonderkommando. Thomsen’s Zone of Interest is carnal, is the commandant’s wife, Hannah Doll (Hedwig), is often full of erotic erudition that reminds one of the best lines from Lolita:

“She opened the half-glass door and, not quite entering, leaned over and rummaged in a flowerpot on a low shelf . . . To tell the truth, in my amatory transactions I hadn’t had a decent thought in my head for seven or eight years (earlier, I was something of a romantic. But I let that go). And as I watched Hannah curve her body forward, with her tensed rump and one mighty leg thrown up and out behind her for balance, I said to myself: This would be a big fuck. A big fuck: that was what I said to myself.”

Thomsen’s zone of interest is erogenous, and he hates the commandant who he refers to as The Old Boozer.  Thomsen has similar eyes for all the women, really, and his imagination and expression are generous in exposition. You either laugh or deal with a shameful erection — you know, like when you were in college and used to read Penthouse’s Letters to the Editor.

Similarly, Szmul Zacharias, the Jewish Sonderkommando, is troubled — with himself, with the price of endurance and survival. Amis has him thinking:

“Once upon a time there was a king, and the king commissioned his favorite wizard to create a magic mirror. This mirror didn’t show you your reflection. It showed you your soul – it showed you who you really were. The wizard couldn’t look at it without turning away. The king couldn’t look at it. The courtiers couldn’t look at it. A chestful of treasure was offered to any citizen in this peaceful land who could look at it for sixty seconds without turning away. And no one could. I find that the KZ is that mirror. The KZ is that mirror, but with one difference. You can’t turn away.”

Ja wohl. We are all crazy as Joseph Heller seems to propose in Catch-22.

Arguably, Amis goes waaaaay over the top, deeply moved and troubled by human nature and the human project itself.  He sees the evidence of our ‘sinning’ piling up:

“Beetling heaps of rucksacks, kitbags, holdalls, cases and trunks (these last adorned with enticing labels of travel – redolent of frontier posts, misty cities), like a vast bonfire awaiting the torch. A stack of blankets as high as a three-storey building: no princess, be she never so delicate, would feel a pea beneath twenty, thirty thousand thicknesses. And all around fat hillocks of pots and pans, of hairbrushes, shirts, coats, dresses, handkerchiefs – also watches, spectacles, and all kinds of prostheses, wigs, dentures, deaf-aids, surgical boots, spinal supports. The eye came last to the mound of children’s shoes, and the sprawling mountain of prams, some of them just wooden troughs on wheels, some of them all curve and contour, carriages for little dukes, little duchesses.”

Sweet Jesus! How will we ever find our way back to the Garden with this burden of conscience?

And, in the end, the Zone of Interest for Amis is the Question of why the Nazis — nay, the Germans — did it?  Why? Thomsen thinks, soberly in the end:

“Yes, I was thinking, how did ‘a sleepy country of poets and dreamers’, and the most highly educated nation the earth had ever seen, how did it yield to such wild, such fantastic disgrace? What made its people, men and women, consent to having their souls raped – and raped by a eunuch (Grofaz: the virgin Priapus, the teetotal Dionysus, the vegetarian Tyrannosaurus rex)? Where did it come from, the need for such a methodical, such a pedantic, and such a literal exploration of the bestial? I of course didn’t know, and neither did…anyone in my sight, families, limping veterans, courting couples, groups of very young and very drunken GIs (all that strong, cheap, and delicious Lowenbrau), tin-rattlers collecting for causes, black-clad widows, a moving, threading line of boy scouts, and sellers of vegetables, sellers of fruit . . .”

Somewhere the answer seems to include what you already knew and have failed to include in the calculus of Mankind’s endeavor: Cain, the first born, was a murderer. Amis is given a writing credit for the film, but the film has no sign of Amis’s outrage and sardonic ‘critique’ of the Project. For Glazer to have truly honored Amis’s take would have required a considerably expanded and far more controversial film, maybe ala Catch-22, which some might argue is actually a postmodern tragedy, But it might have been a more effective movie had it been over-the-top.

A few days ago, The Guardian ran an interview with one of Rudolph Höss’s daughters, Brigitte (played by Nele Ahrensmeier in the film). She talks of how wonderful Mom and Dad were, with no real sign of acknowledging the contribution of Papa’s eager assault on humanity. Thomas Harding, the interviewer, tells us:

“Next to me stood a scraggy Christmas tree. From its branches hung homemade ornaments that decades before Brigitte had brought from Germany. “Mutti made many of those,” she told me with a fond smile.”

And of her father she tells Harding,

‘“He was a wonderful dad,” she said. “On Sundays he smoked a cigar through the whole house. We had breakfast, lunch or dinner, like a nice family.” She then added: “We didn’t even know what his work was really.”’

Never Forget and Never Remember. The key word is Never.

The Zone of Interest won an Oscar for Best International Feature Film. Jonathan Glazer accepted the trophy and made a speech.  He said, in part,

“Our film shows where dehumanization leads, at its worst. It shaped all of our past and present. Right now we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation, which has led to conflict for so many innocent people.”

This statement became controversial, in that it equates Holocaust dehumanization with the atrocities taking place in Gaza. Glazer suggests that Netanyahu’s decision to raze Gaza and puts its people on the brink of mass starvation — in retaliation for the horrific events of October 7 — has marked Jews worldwide as monsters and made the remembrance of the events of the Holocaust seem hypocritical.  (Full speech transcript and analysis here.)

This is a strong view, but many American Jews, for instance, all of whom are Israeli citizens in principle (Israel is seen as the guaranteed historical homeland of Jews), don’t see Israel’s eye-for-an-eye action as necessary, let alone justifiable.  In some ways, it reminds one of the controversy that erupted after the censoring of the Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers (2012), which had cut a section of the film where former Shin Bet officers discussed how Zionist zealots had planned on blowing up the Dome of the Rock for the express purpose of initiating Armageddon (and ending the world).  Reichstag?

While perhaps a lesser event, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has recently alluded to the Israeli government’s failure to heed American warning about Hamas activities just prior to the October 7 massacre and hostage-taking.  In his Substack post of April 3, “What Did We Know and When Did We Know It?”, Hersh notes,

“Israel’s failure to anticipate the October 7 Hamas assault is the most dramatic example of neglecting to listen to and take account of a series of Duty to Warn messages from the American intelligence community, whose satellites watched and listened as Hamas instructors trained cadres how to breach the Israeli border in six places and trained others to fly over the border fence in crude paragliders. These activities grew more intense early last fall.”

A cynic might see such intentional ignorance as a Dome of the Rock event. As, surely, endless needs for retaliation will now follow; you can already hear the ululations already beginning — if you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row.

The Zone of Interest is a good movie, but the Martin Amis book is a better engagement. I recommend both. Or one could eschew both and look at Amis’s sources for his drawing.  He lists dozens of reads, including: Yehuda Bauer, Raul Hilberg, Norman Cohn, Alan Bullock, H. R. Trevor Roper, Hannah Arendt, Lucy S. Dawidowicz, Martin Gilbert, Ian Kershaw, Joachim C. Fest, Saul Friedländer, Richard J. Evans, Richard Overy, Gitta Sereny, Christopher R. Browning, Michael Burleigh, Mark Mazower, and Timothy Snyder, among many others. [For his full exhaustive list see pages 266-267 of the novel.]

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.