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“The Zone of Interest”: Oscar-Nominated Film Producer on the Holocaust, Gaza & “Walls That Separate Us”

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Update: During the Oscars ceremony, filmmaker Jonathan Glazer condemned the Israeli occupation after his Holocaust film “The Zone of Interest” won an Oscar for best international film.

Ahead of the 96th Academy Awards, we’re joined by James Wilson, producer of the Oscar-nominated film The Zone of Interest, who raised Israel’s assault on Gaza in his BAFTA Award acceptance speech last month. The film follows the fictionalized family of real-life Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss as they live idyllically next to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Wilson says the film serves as a metaphor for the occlusion of “systemic violence, injustice, oppression, from our lives,” and challenges audiences’ complicity by asking them to identify with Höss and his wife Hedwig. “The idea of this film was to look for the similarities, rather than the differences, between us and the perpetrator,” says Wilson.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We end today’s show with the producer of the Oscar-nominated Holocaust film, Zone of Interest, about the family of Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss living a tranquil life on the opposite side of the wall of the Auschwitz concentration camp. First, this is the film’s trailer.

LINNA HENSEL: [played by Imogen Kogge] [translated] These flowers are so beautiful.

HEDWIG HÖSS: [played by Sandra Hüller] [translated] The azaleas there. There are also vegetables. A few herbs. Rosemary. Beetroot. This is fennel. Sunflowers. And here is kohlrabi. The children love to eat it.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: [translated] The heartfelt time we spent in the Höss house will always be among our most beautiful holiday memories. In the east lies our tomorrow. Thanks for you National Socialist hospitality.

AMY GOODMAN: The Zone of Interest just won three BAFTA Awards last month for best sound, best British film and best film not in the English language. During his acceptance speech, producer James Wilson raised Israel’s assault on Gaza.

JAMES WILSON: A friend — a friend wrote me after seeing the film the other day that he couldn’t stop thinking about the walls we construct in our lives, which we choose not to look behind. Those walls aren’t new from before or during or since the Holocaust. And it seems stark right now that we should care about innocent people being killed in Gaza or Yemen in the same way we think about innocent people being killed in Mariupol or in Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by James Wilson, producer of the Oscar-nominated film The Zone of Interest, nominated for best picture, among others. The Oscar ceremony is Sunday — best international picture.

Congratulations, James Wilson, on all the nominations and what you won at the BAFTAs. Talk about that experience and why you related what’s happening now with Israel’s assault on Gaza to this Holocaust film, and talk specifically about that wall that separated the commandant’s home from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

JAMES WILSON: Well, thank you, Amy. Good morning. Thank you for inviting me on the show.

Well, I mean, why I said that? I mean, as you heard in the clip, I mean, I related the film both to the — in the present moment of the Israeli assault on Gaza, but also the innocent victims in Israel on October the 7th. And I mentioned Yemen, and I mentioned Ukraine, too, Mariupol, too. So, the context of that, which felt — it felt organic to the idea of the film, the questions of the film. You know, I know politics in film award speeches can grate sometimes, but this — as I said, this felt very pertinent to what the film is about, which is that — yeah, as you say, the walls that separate us from things that we choose not to look at, just as the friend who had messaged me about the film saying he couldn’t stop thinking about that in his own daily life. And all of that just came together. I was obviously thinking about it beforehand. You know, I felt — you know, it was a nervous moment just to speak in front of a lot of people. I’ve never won an award for a film I’ve worked on. But it felt organic to the idea of the film.

And you mentioned the wall in the film. And, of course, the film stages an absolutely real situation, which is the Höss — the family of, you know, the commandant of Auschwitz and his wife and the family, and the life they led in a nice house and garden that exactly abutted Auschwitz in full operation in the early 1940s. And that wall, which is in the film and in that situation, was absolutely real. It’s of course also a metaphor for, as my friend’s message said, the way we can sort of occlude and tune out systematic violence, injustice, oppression, all sorts of things, from our lives in order that we go on with them. And I suppose the film asks that question: What are the walls in our lives? Do we have walls like that in our life? Are there groups of people whom we care about more than others, as groups of people socially, not as friends and family? And it seems quite clear that that is the case.

And I suppose the other thing about the film is we always wanted it to be — feel modern and feel about the present. Everything about how we made it, how Jon Glaze, the writer/director of the film, wanted to make it, was to make it feel like it was happening in the present and it reflected the present. And that was, you know, through the tools of filmmaking — cinematography, acting, music, sound design — to create this immersive feeling of present tenseness, which was a means to an hopeful end, which was to reflect us in the present.

And Jon has also spoken about how it’s a political film. And one of the things that’s happening in the present is this extraordinary, staggering loss of innocent life and killing of innocent people in Gaza in the Occupied Territories, that is a response to the heinous mass killing of October the 7th. But it just seems very stark in the world that we have, politically, our governments at least, have a different level of care and attitude to those innocent people being killed in Gaza and in Yemen and, of course, in other — you know, this selective empathy, I think, marks hundreds of years of human history — and I mentioned that in the — I spoke to that in the brief speech I was able to make — and isn’t just something that was happening, you know, from 1940 to ’45 in Germany. So, all of those things sort of came together in that moment in that speech.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, James Wilson, you mentioned the commandant of Auschwitz and his family. What was the challenge in getting the audience to identify with these main characters, with this idyllic family, up against this incomprehensible terror and destruction that was happening right — or, that was occurring and he was presiding over?

JAMES WILSON: Well, I mean, in a way, you’ve — I mean, the challenge — the challenge that you identify sort of is the core of the film, I think, the questions of the film. It’s not a polemical film. There’s not like a message where we’re trying to pin it, you know, tie it up with a neat bow. But I think the whole — I think the whole question of the film and the idea, the thinking space of the film, it’s a film, I think, that asks you to — tries to make a space in which you can think, was to lean into some kind of identification with those people, as you say, the commandant of Auschwitz and his partner, his wife, to look for the similarities, not the differences. The typical way the Holocaust is narrated is of a sort of — you know, sort of is of something — it’s the discourse of what’s called Holocaust exceptionalism, right? That the Holocaust stands apart from history, outside of history, as this sort of mythic, almost evil, mystical event. And there’s something apolitical and ahistorical in that idea. So the idea of this film was to look for the similarities, rather than the differences, between us and the perpetrator, which is not —

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to go to a clip from your film, when Nazi commandant —


AMY GOODMAN: — Rudolf Höss’s wife Hedwig Hensel speaks to her mother.

LINNA HENSEL: [played by Imogen Kogge] [translated] Is that tahe camp wall?

HEDWIG HÖSS: [played by Sandra Hüller] [translated] Yes, that’s the camp wall. We planted more vines at the back to grow and cover it.

LINNA HENSEL: [translated] Maybe Esther Silberman is over there.

HEDWIG HÖSS: [translated] Which one was she?

LINNA HENSEL: [translated] The one I used to clean for.

AMY GOODMAN: James Wilson, 10 seconds to wrap.

JAMES WILSON: Well, I mean, just to pick up that last point, it was to look for all those details and aspects of our lives in terms of our aspirations, our desire for household comfort, the things that motivated and drove them that reflect in different ways our life.

AMY GOODMAN: James Wilson, we’re going to leave it there. Congratulations on your Oscar nominations for international film at the Oscars, The Zone of Interest. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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