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Yiddish and the Jewish Voice in The Zone of Interest

Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler

A little over an hour into Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, the wind shifts. A Polish woman living a few miles downwind of Auschwitz catches the breeze as it passes through her curtains and into her darkened kitchen. She draws her hand toward her nose, grimacing in recognition; she clatters to her feet to draw her curtain back and pull her window closed against the air. In the distance, the crematorium of Auschwitz is belching thick smoke, illuminated by the fires driving it. This is a stark contrast to the previous seventy-eight minutes of film, in which audiences see Commander Rudolf Höss and his family move through their daily routines in a house built on the threshold of the camp by design, rarely indicating interest in the sounds and smells of mass death churning just over the garden wall.

There’s a language shift, too. Until viewers are transported, briefly, into this home belonging to presumed partisans, we have heard mostly German. As the unnamed woman from the kitchen hurries against the wind bringing the smell of death into her home, we are, abruptly, given Yiddish narration. A man’s voice intones alongside small yellow subtitles, before we hear a plinking, simple melody accompanying disconnected lines of poetry:

Words by Joseph Wulf. Written in 1943 in Oświęcim, Auschwitz III.

The Zone of Interest is more about what you hear versus what you see—though the clinical tracking shots that follow Auschwitz Commander Höss’ wife, Hedwig, as she maneuvers through her overflowing garden built alongside the active crematorium are remarkably effective. “It’s impossible to show what happened inside those walls,” Glazer told Rolling Stone in late 2023. “And in my opinion, one shouldn’t try.”

Detractors and critics of Glazer’s ten-year effort to make a different kind of Holocaust film generally fall into three categories: they critique it on the basis that it employs too many arthouse film tropes to be rhetorically useful; that it does not focus on or show the lives (and explicit suffering) of Jews during the Holocaust; that at the Academy Awards, while accepting the award for best International Feature, Glazer dared to connect his examination of where dehumanization leads to the terror that gripped Israel in early October and the decimating military response that has been smothering Gaza since.

The latter strikes me as especially disingenuous, as someone who followed the film’s progression through the festival circuit since last summer; from its earliest premiere, Glazer has been explicit in seeing contemporary relevance. “For me,” he told the Guardian, “this is not a film about the past. It’s trying to be about now, and about us and our similarity to the perpetrators, not our similarity to the victims.”

As a Jewish folklorist and Yiddishist, it is the former two criticisms that I carried with me as I watched The Zone of Interest in early February. In a darkened theater where I expected to be spending two hours solely with the architects of the Final Solution, hearing Yiddish was, undeniably, a jolt. It produced the same effect on me that volunteering for the Reading of the Names as an undergraduate did, when I discovered upon receiving my randomly-assigned list of murdered Jews that I had received a sheet with my own relatives on it. I left the theater desperate to know how Joseph Wulf’s voice and the lyrics to “Sunbeams” had ended up in Glazer’s purview, and why. Moreover, I was curious to challenge my own initial reactions to the song’s addition to the film: was Glazer inadvertently making Wulf the “voice” of the Jews–full stop–in a film that purposefully keeps us off screen? And is that inherently a bad thing, in a movie as singularly focused on the machinations of death (and who pulls their levers) as The Zone of Interest?

Predictably, explicit examination of Joseph Wulf and his writings seems to have been more or less limited to Jewish-focused media outlets. Forverts writer PJ Grisar frames “Sunbeams” thus:

The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer’s drama about the humdrum home life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, starts and ends with composer Mica Levi’s chorus of shrieking voices and synthesizers that lead the viewer in and out of the hell roiling just out of frame. The sound design as a whole — crowded with distant screams, gunshots and barking dogs — paints a picture of what the screen never dares show. But the film’s most arresting aural moment is a simple melody played on piano by a young Polish girl.

Before she plays, a voice speaking in Yiddish introduces the tune as the work of Joseph Wulf, written in 1943 in Auschwitz III. As the music starts, lyrics appear in subtitles: “Sunbeams, radiant and warm/Human bodies, young and old; And who are imprisoned here, Our hearts are yet not cold.”

It is the film’s sole moment of direct Jewish testimony, and it is astonishingly voiceless. It was also, very nearly, forgotten.

Like Grisar, I connected with the Holocaust Museum’s staff musicologist Bret Werb, who was responsible for putting “Sunbeams” in the hands of Glazer’s team. In our conversation, he echoed much of what he told Grisar: that The Zone of Interest’s production team was interested in a piece of music that would have been composed in Auschwitz around 1943; that it needed to not have been used in a film prior; that it needed to be in Yiddish. “Wulf’s song,” Grisar notes, “was the only thing that fit the bill.”

Wulf’s archival recording was not lost before its usage in The Zone of Interest (indeed, Werb secured its preservation in the Museum’s public archives in 2001), but it has certainly gained a far wider audience by Glazer’s hand. In researching Glazer’s own comments on Wulf and “Sunbeams” specifically, I was struck by how often critics engaging The Zone of Interest left the song out of the conversation entirely.

Writing unfavorably in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis outlines the rolodex of noises one might pick up on:

In “The Zone of Interest,” Glazer deploys a number of art-film conventions, including narrative ellipses and long uninterrupted takes. Throughout, characters are kept at a remove (as if they are being surveilled) and filmed mostly in medium or long shots; I only remember one grim close-up of a face. There are bursts of music (by Mica Levi), one bit features unnerving yelping and whooping, though not a conventional soundtrack. For the most part, the intricately layered audio foregrounds everyday conversations and chatter over a low, persistent machinelike hum, a droning that is regularly punctuated by train sounds, muffled gunfire and indecipherable yelling and screaming. It sounds like the engine of death.

Notably–and, perhaps, predictably–no mention is made of “Sunbeams.” She continues: “The Zone of Interest” is a blunt, obvious movie. In scene after scene, Glazer underscores the blandness of these characters’ lives without resorting to exegesis, weeping violins and faces or, instructively, a heroic figure.”

Is Wulf not, in some abstract way, a heroic figure? Is the girl so clearly risking her life to leave apples for the condemned not heroic? I am not looking for heroes in Holocaust media; still, it feels like a disservice to what Glazer put on screen to ignore these deliberate inclusions.

In a review for CNN clearly pegged to the Academy Awards and intended as a thinly veiled takedown of Glazer, Peter Rutland writes: “While the evil of Nazism is an abstraction in the movie, out of sight and out of mind, viewers are invited to identify with the daily life of the family Höss. The lush images of the film convey an idyllic family life, with an immaculately clean house and bountiful garden. The Nazis loved their children and their pets. They played the piano.” Beyond this deliberate misreading–if Rutland felt invited to identify with the Höss family and saw an idyllic family there amidst the constant, smothering reverb of gunshots and screams clearly coming from the other side of their garden wall, we watched different films–there is the tedious frustration of minor details cast aside for the sake of an angle. No Höss family member plays the piano; the piano playing is, of course, the moment the film engages directly with Jewish testimony.

In the New Yorker, Richard Brody was similarly unmoved:

There’s no room for rabidness in the movie, however, no ideological talk or overt hatred. There’s also no room for the victims: prisoners, serving as forced laborers, appear around the house throughout the film, but silently. They’re given neither any voice nor any point of view.

Brody deems Glazer’s efforts to be an “extreme form of Holokitsch,” a term coined by Art Spiegelman to categorize Holocaust media too steeped in sentimentality to speak plainly about what happened and to whom. “By the time Maus came out,” Spiegelman told the Sunday Times, “there was a literature, and it’s grown ever since, that I dubbed Holo-kitsch…. “There’s a really strong sentimental streak that runs through a lot of this stuff and it makes me shudder.”

Still, Brody fails to connect the dots–or perhaps, was uninterested in doing so–of the sequence of events that bring Wulf’s words to the screen:

There are moments that suggest an earnest and substantial inspiration that, however, remains largely undeveloped. A girl appears to have found a folded-up sheet of lyrics, titled “Sunbeams,” by the real-life Auschwitz inmate and survivor Joseph Wulf; she plays the piano, as if inwardly setting it to her music, as its words appear on screen in subtitles. (Did she scavenge the poem in her black-and-white, night-vision wanderings? The physical practicality behind such a moment is exactly the sort of exalted ordinariness that virtually cries out for a straightforward, dramatically direct and detailed approach.)

The page on screen is scrawled with notes; you see the girl discover the sheet as she pulls a container out from behind the shovel where she is leaving apples. Joseph Wulf, as explicitly as possible, introduces his own work–as much a ghost to us watching the film as he is to the girl who has, for the sake of the film’s narrative, uncovered his work.

The Guardian refers to the Polish partisan’s efforts as the film’s “single moments of hope.” These are not Glazer’s exact words; indeed, the article incorrectly claims that the real-life partisan Glazer met and modeled his actress after was also responsible for smuggling Wulf’s writing out of Auschwitz (Wulf left no such notes; the visual representation of the note sheet and lyrics seen in The Zone of Interest is a prop). Still:

The scene came about as a result of Glazer meeting a 90-year-old woman called Alexandria, who had worked for the Polish resistance when she was just 12. She recounted how she had cycled to the camp to leave apples, and how she had found the mysterious piece of written music, which, it turned out, had been composed by an Auschwitz prisoner called Joseph Wulf, who survived the war. “She lived in the house we shot in,” says Glazer. “It was her bike we used, and the dress the actor wears was her dress. Sadly, she died a few weeks after we spoke.”

He pauses for a long moment. “That small act of resistance, the simple, almost holy act of leaving food, is crucial because it is the one point of light. I really thought I couldn’t make the film at that point. I kept ringing my producer, Jim, and saying: ‘I’m getting out. I can’t do this. It’s just too dark.’ It felt impossible to just show the utter darkness, so I was looking for the light somewhere and I found it in her. She is the force for good.”

It would have been easy to claim “Sunbeams,”—or, indeed, hearing any Yiddish at all—as inherently hopeful, the beacon of light Glazer was looking for. But Glazer avoids this kind of sentimentality (the very kind Art Spiegelman warns of); he gives that mantle to the woman you see, in no uncertain terms, putting food into the hands of the starved. It is up to the audience to engage with Wulf; I believe it is deliberate and important that he did not construct a Yiddish dialogue nor put Yiddish words in the mouths of his actors.

Brody describes the film’s ending:

The movie ends, pardon my spoiler, at the current-day museum that is Auschwitz. Glazer films employees cleaning inside a former gas chamber and in the halls and corridors where piles of shoes, crutches and other medical devices, and uniforms of inmates are on display. He seems to suggest that there’s such a thing as the banality of good, too, yet it remains similarly muted and abstract. He doesn’t deign to hear what the workers have to say.

When I watched the custodians of the modern Auschwitz museum click on the lights in the gas chamber, I felt my husband shift beside me in his chair and hunch forward. When the camera blankly panned to the seemingly endless rows of suitcases, preserved behind glass with their former owners’ names clearly visible, a low groan of pain escaped his lips. I frantically scanned the suitcases to see if either of our last names were printed anywhere. I wondered if anyone else in the theater was instinctively undertaking the same exercise.

Before the present-day cleaning crew begins their daily rotations, we see Höss standing at the end of a long, gray hallway, having just learned the operation to liquidate Hungary’s Jews will bear his name. He calls his wife with the news; he admits that he was distracted during the party meant to celebrate this success, and was preoccupied imagining how to most effectively gas everyone in the room. Halfway down the stairway, he attempts to retch. Nothing comes up. He emerges on another landing, and raises his head to stare blankly ahead; as the screen cuts to the door of the once-crematorium inside the Auschwitz museum swinging wide, you wonder if he is seeing the future. I do not believe Glazer intends to push The Zone of Interest into the supernatural. Instead, we are compelled to grapple with the knowledge that Höss did his job, and did it well. Building a museum over a mass grave inadvertently creates the uncomfortable parallel of preserving what the perpetrators believed was their great success. Would Höss be proud to see an hourly waged worker polish with care the glass protecting thousands of his victims’ shoes? If you tilt your head just a little, everything starts to look like a trophy. “Muted and abstract” is not how I would describe this evocative ending.

It is this blunt, arresting engagement with this specific material culture of the Holocaust that puts into sharp relief Glazer’s choices with regard to Wulf’s surviving testimonies and music. Whether or not The Zone of Interest is a good film does not hinge on the usage of a minute-long melody. But I do believe its employment tells us the film was impeccably researched by a Jewish director with a clear vision for who ought to say what, and when.

Ultimately, I find myself returning to the composer Mica Levy’s interview with the LA Times:

To Emile Mosseri, the Oscar-nominated composer of “Minari,” Levi’s work is “the most f— up music you’ve ever heard — beautiful and cathartic in how it delivers the horror you’ve been self-generating the whole film.” To Glazer, it’s “alarm bells, walls shaking, a call to arms, a surfacing.”

Are these the voices of the victims or the hell-bound damned who murdered them? Levi doesn’t intellectualize it like that, doesn’t have a straightforward intention.

“I think they’re really confusing, emotionally,” Levi says.

Fortunately, “Sunbeams” is not.


Sunbeams, radiant and warm/Human bodies, young and old

And we who are imprisoned here, Our hearts are yet not cold

souls afire / like the blazing sun

tearing, breaking through their pain

For soon we’ll see / that waving flag

The flag of freedom yet to come


Note from the Editors: Click to listen to “Sunbeams” at the USHMM website.

MLA STYLE
Orlovsky-Schnitzler, Justine. “Yiddish and the Jewish Voice in The Zone of Interest.” In geveb, April 2024: https://ingeveb.org/blog/zone-of-interest.
CHICAGO STYLE
Orlovsky-Schnitzler, Justine. “Yiddish and the Jewish Voice in The Zone of Interest.” In geveb (April 2024): Accessed May 26, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler

Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler is a writer, folklorist, and advocate currently working in reproductive justice.