“The proof is not the corpses; the proof is the absence of corpses,” the Franco-Jewish filmmaker Claude Lanzmann told the Guardian while describing the effect on the viewer of his monumental documentary Shoah (1985). To this day a definitive work about the Holocaust, Shoah explored the burden of historical proof, problematizing the use of images in the aftermath of World War II. Where the Italian Jewish philosopher Primo Levy — like Lanzmann, a Holocaust survivor — believed that words could not capture the horror of the atrocities or the pathologies of the perpetrators, Lanzmann tackled images as insufficient bearers of truth.
Viewers accustomed to seeing archival photographs of concentration camp mass graves or of camp survivors’ emaciated bodies, many taken after the camps’ liberation, will not find them in Shoah. Instead, the camera trails over empty fields and train tracks. As the film’s only narrator, Lanzmann enlists the power of language to make the absence — the overgrown fields, the grim, factory-like structures, or the gaping holes after their demolition — evoke the past. To him, topography, architectural and other markers, all contain a permanent social imprint, even when invisible to the naked eye. The director’s insistence on this embedded meaning is doubly important since, while select images of the Holocaust — the gaping crematoria, for example — are notorious and often reproduced, innumerable others were never recorded, or have been lost forever, and with them the stories narrating the lives of unnamed victims.
Two movies at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival offered an opportunity to reflect on the onscreen representation of the Holocaust after Shoah: Jonathan Glazer’s clinically controlled drama, The Zone of Interest, and Steve McQueen’s prodigiously researched documentary, Occupied City. Both directors exemplify a profound awareness of Lanzmann’s dictum that while images may touch upon the horrors, they are never the full story: Holocaust trauma is ineffable.
The Zone of Interest, which centers on Auschwitz’s longest serving commandant, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), pulls no punches, even if it leaves most of the goings-on inside the camp and its prisoners out of sight. The film makes ample use of monstrous femininity — a trait that aligns it with the growing number of womb-centered horror films, in the vein of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017). Hedwig, brilliantly played by Hüller, is the epitome of banal evil and the greed behind the Nazi ideology — a smugly satisfied Frau, whose husband excels at building crematoria (one scene shows him consulting engineers on how to increase the furnaces’ efficacy). For Hedwig, who was born poor, Auschwitz is a Valhalla. She blissfully preens her garden, which faces the camp. Tended to by maids and cooks (all prisoners), she gloats in gold jewelry and mink coats, stripped from unseen yet ever-present victims.
Glazer, known for immaculate production design (for instance, his boldly realized science-fiction feature, Under the Skin), summons the aura of horror with ingenious sound and visual design. The pastels of the house suggest a nightmarish dollhouse, while the tilted camera makes the domestic space feel off-kilter and the converging angles arouse a sensation of oppressive claustrophobia.
Similarly to Lanzmann’s Shoah, the less direct horror is that we see in The Zone of Interest the more ominous it feels. Silences thud. When the crematoria fire up, the skies bleed red, as do the house’s walls. In one of the most evocative scenes, Hedwig’s mother, gaga over her daughter’s success, approaches the bedroom window at night, her body engulfed by the crimson glow. The next morning, Hedwig’s furious to learn that her horror-stricken mother (or so the horridly still nocturnal scene suggests) packed up in the night and fled.
Though Glazer depicts a historical past dramatically, his awareness of how fraught such dramatization can be comes through. The actors’ performances are deliberately chilly and subdued, no atrocities are shown directly, and psychologizing is reduced to a minimum. In its place, a metaphysical pall hovers over the film, an aura of psychic trauma infecting the perpetrators. This latter aspect — a suggestion, for example, that the couple’s children internalize the trauma — goes against Lanzmann’s dictum by delving into the subconscious.
More directly indebted to Lanzmann, Steve McQueen draws on research by his partner, the Dutch historian Bianca Stigter. In her book Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945, Stigter traces the presence of Jewish citizens in Amsterdam before the war, and their fates during the occupation. McQueen organizes his four-hour documentary as a listicle of addresses. Street by street, building by building, Melanie Hyams states dispassionately in the voiceover the names and professions of the Jewish families — merchants, doctors, journalists, activists, and others — and their number per household, before reporting deportations or executions. Dutch citizens who hid Jewish families and underground fighters, their deportations and deaths, are also documented. In this sense, the film picks up on Lanzmann’s technique of showing seemingly innocuous or blank spaces, then revealing their past through narration. The camera sometimes enters apartments, but often stops at facades.
As in Shoah, there are no corpses in Occupied City. The primarily residential addresses — or occasional mentions of demolitions and the images of urban structures replacing them — speak to the lives eradicated. Yet McQueen takes Lanzmann’s idea of metonymic substitution further, not only by using the present city to speak of the past, but also by depicting Amsterdam’s streets and public gatherings during the COVID-19 lockdown. The latter bid is particularly effective. Amsterdam during COVID is a ghost town. So while McQueen’s gesture seems incongruous — conflating one historical context with another — the dual temporal frame allows him to delve into the emotive aspect of urban space. What is it like to experience a city that’s emptying out? To not only imply absence, but actually feel losses as they accrue?
Amsterdam, as McQueen captures it, overflows only during anti-COVID protests, as angry citizens congregate and are charged at by equestrian policemen. He integrates such imagery with the story in the voiceover narrative of occasional uprisings against the Nazis. Strengthened by the dramatic scenes, the Holocaust emerges as a historical-psychic space, which, while it cannot be represented in a direct way — especially since very few archival images of Amsterdam’s Shoah were ever recorded — can at least be conjured through sensations.
The Zone of Interest screens at the New York Film Festival Oct 8–13, with a nationwide release in December.
Occupied City screens at the New York Film Festival on Oct 1–2, accompanied by a Q&A with Steve McQueen and Bianca Stigter.