The psychology of the petty bourgeoisie under fascism, its individualist mindset and narrowness of vision, finds powerful expression in Jonathan Glazer’s film The Zone of Interest

Loosely based on the novel by Martin Amis, the film portrays SS officer Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), commandant of Auschwitz; his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their five children as they live beside the death camp where the Nazis killed 1.1 million people, mostly Jews.

The Höss family seems “normal” on the surface. We never see the grisly business of genocide taking place behind the walls, but hear muffled sound of gunshots and screaming. We see smoke pouring from the chimneys, but never bodies being burned in the crematorium.

Glazer juxtaposes this unseen horror with the banality of the Höss household: the family swimming in the river and sharing meals, Hedwig tending her garden, Rudolf listening to sports updates on Nazi radio.

Despite living next to the primary site of the Holocaust, for the Hösses, the real tragedy is when Rudolf is transferred to Oranienburg near Berlin. Mrs. Höss is beside herself at the notion that they might have to move away from what she considers an idyllic home. 

The banality of the plot of the movie, and the fact that the horrors of the camp are almost never shown, reflect the narrowness of views of the Höss family. Their worldview doesn’t go further than their garden.

Like many Nazis, Rudolf Höss came from a petty-bourgeois background, his father a former army officer who ran a tea and coffee business. 

Leon Trotsky defined fascism as a mass movement of the ruined petty bourgeoisie (middle classes) and lumpenproletariat, used as a battering ram by big business to physically destroy the workers’ movement. He described fascism as “the petty bourgeoisie gone mad”.

As an intermediate class, the petty bourgeoisie strives for wealth and a bourgeois lifestyle, but is crushed under the weight of the banks and big bourgeoisie. In conditions of acute capitalist crisis, they can come to see conquest and plunder as the only means of attaining that lifestyle, and turn to murderous rage against anybody deemed to be standing in their way—be it workers, Jews, or other minorities or ethnic groups.

The Zone of Interest captures the extreme individualism and myopia of the petty bourgeoisie, who are prepared to accept the worst horror if it means improving their lifestyle. At one point, Mrs. Höss, devastated at the idea of losing her home next to a death camp, says, “Everything the Führer said about how to live is how we do. Go East. Living space [Lebensraum]. This is our living space.” A big house with a garden: that is what the Hösses were ready to commit mass murder for.

Despite being about events from 80 years ago, this is a deeply topical movie. Glazer, who is Jewish, explicitly connected The Zone of Interest to Israel’s attack on Gaza when he accepted the Academy Award for Best International Feature. “All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present,” Glazer said. “Not to say ‘look what they did then’—rather, ‘look what we do now.’

“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,” he added. “Whether the victims of Oct. 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza—all the victims of this dehumanization, how do we resist?”

For his mild speech at the Oscars, Glazer was immediately attacked by the film industry and bourgeois media—accusing him of antisemitism, often misquoting his speech. Glazer, who could be seen trembling when he said these words, was putting his own career on the line. Producers will think twice before giving him money for his next film.

The outrage caused by this speech among Hollywood fat cats—Glazer was even denounced by his own producers—underscores the current artistic wasteland that capitalist society is going through. Political movies and artistic pieces like The Zone of Interest are few and far between.

This sterile creative atmosphere has been even more glaring in the current context of a genocide, where artists have been largely silent about the onslaught on Gaza, or have limited their comments to vague statements about peace or calling for a ceasefire. It has taken fully seven months for a mainstream musician to release a song denouncing the genocide, with Macklemore’s “Hind’s Hall”.

As capitalism is rotting away, sinking ever deeper into crisis, political art can only be revolutionary, denunciatory, to be relevant. But artists largely depend on funds and means from big producers and distributors, who are not interested in spreading revolutionary ideas that attack their system.

To free art from its shackles, and allow artists like Glazer to keep making art, the wealth of society should be expropriated from these rich, genocide-denying producers, and placed under workers’ control.