In the British comedy “Extras,” Kate Winslet, who appears as a version of herself, is playing as a nun in a film about the Holocaust. When commended for using her platform to bring attention to the atrocities, she replies callously, “I’m not doing it for that. I mean, I don’t think we really need another film about the Holocaust, do we?” She explains that she took the role because if you do a movie about the Holocaust, you’re “guaranteed an Oscar.”
The fictional Winslet’s perspective on movies about the Holocaust, though obviously a joke in the context of that 2005 episode, has become something of a prevailing opinion. Since Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993) won best picture and six other Academy Awards nearly 30 years ago, Holocaust films from “Life Is Beautiful” (1998) to “Jojo Rabbit” (2019) have been seen as Oscar bait. Well intentioned or not, they are considered the kind of cinema you should but don’t necessarily want to see, meant to tug at heartstrings and win their creators prizes.
In fact, Winslet herself proved that theory correct when she won the best actress Oscar in 2009 for “The Reader,” in which she played a woman who served as an SS guard at Auschwitz. At the ceremony, the host, Hugh Jackman, built a musical moment around the fact that he hadn’t seen “The Reader,” a gag that got a roar of knowing laughter from the audience: Movies about the Holocaust are important, yes, but skippable.
But maybe the notion of the Holocaust movie is changing. This year in particular, three films seek to challenge the idea of what it can and should be. All of them turn an analytical eye on their subject matter, linking the horrors of the past to the present, in that way making the subject feel as upsettingly resonant as ever.
In “The Zone of Interest” (opening Friday), the British director Jonathan Glazer very loosely adapts a Martin Amis novel to offer a portrait of daily life for Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the commandant of Auschwitz; his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller); and their children. Nearly plotless, it barely goes inside the camp, instead focusing on the visually idyllic world the couple have created for their family all while Höss plans the extermination of the Jews imprisoned next door. After Hedwig ushers her husband off to work — a man in the striped uniform of Auschwitz prisoners is holding the reins of Rudolf’s horse — she coos to her baby, “Would you like to smell a rose?” It’s certainly more pleasant than smelling burning bodies.
Just when you think “The Zone of Interest” might be too unbearable with its unrepentant focus on evil, Glazer shifts to the perspective of a Polish girl and her act of kindness. He films the girl, based on a real person, in thermal imaging so she’s nearly obscured as she leaves fruit for the prisoners, and her gesture is scored to the dissonant notes of Mica Levi’s score, which sounds like a droning voice. That little bit of hope feels distant and distinctly uninspirational.
Glazer operates from the notion that we, the audience, can imagine what is happening inside the walls of Auschwitz. We can envision the shaved heads and gas chambers; we don’t need to see the Hösses’ brutality to know what they have inflicted. It’s almost a shatteringly nonviolent film, and yet the implication of that violence is more potent than anything he could stage. You’re left to reckon with what it means to go about your day when there’s smoke in the air from bodies being incinerated.
“The Zone of Interest” feels in many ways like a companion piece to “Occupied City,” the documentary from Steve McQueen and the writer Bianca Stigter, due Dec. 25. (Sitting through the film’s four-hour, 22-minute run time would make for an intense holiday, to say the least.)
Like “The Zone of Interest,” “Occupied City” consciously removes emotion from its narrative, which is based on Stigter’s book “Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945.” Over its extended, and sometimes grueling, run time, we travel through the streets of Amsterdam as a narrator (Melanie Hyams) explains what happened during the Nazi occupation at each address we visit.
Independently the stories are fascinating — mini sagas of perseverance, resistance and cruelty that could each serve as the basis for their own films — but Hyams delivers them dispassionately. Though I tried taking notes, by the end of the film I had trouble remembering every detail I wished to. It all became overwhelming and started to blend together as I tried to take in the history as well as the new images McQueen offers of a range of events: from Covid lockdown to a pro-Palestinian protest to the ugly blackface traditions of Christmastime in that city.
Glazer’s and McQueen’s films are numbing in different ways: In “The Zone of Interest,” you become inured to the casual ways in which its protagonists thrive next to untold suffering, while “Occupied City” tests patience with its length and sprawl. The documentary shows how memory is so easily lost in a place, and how demolishing a building can also demolish a legacy of trauma or heroism. The voice-over finally pauses for the finale, which follows a boy’s bar mitzvah preparations, the only time in “Occupied City” that current Jewish life is explicitly depicted, a reminder that the Jews of Amsterdam have not been entirely erased despite the Nazis’ intentions.
“Zone” also eventually time-travels to the modern day. In its final moments, Glazer captures footage of the museum and memorial that now stands at Auschwitz. But he doesn’t focus on reverent tourists. Instead, we see employees sweeping the floors of the gas chambers and polishing the glass that holds the mountains of victims’ shoes. It’s extremely moving but also routine. One kind of daily life has merged into another, this one dedicated to preserving the memory of the people Rudolf and Hedwig Höss were complicit in killing.
This conversation between then and now can also be found in Ava DuVernay’s latest, “Origin” (in theaters), a drama based on Isabel Wilkerson’s nonfiction best seller “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” DuVernay follows Wilkerson, played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, as she researches what will become her book. She compares the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany to that of Black people in America and the Dalits in India, concluding that ultimately it is all the result of caste systems, with hateful groups learning subjugation from one another.
But DuVernay does not shun bald emotionalism the way Glazer, McQueen and Stigter do. In the climactic sequence, which dramatizes Wilkerson’s writing process, the director creates a montage to describe dehumanization that includes images of Black bodies brutalized on a slave ship; Jews being herded into concentration camps; and Dalits cleaning sewage while relegated to work as manual scavengers, their bodies covered in excrement. The scenes are certainly more intentionally tearjerking than anything in “The Zone of Interest” or “Occupied City.”
And yet they all share a refusal to let the Holocaust live solely in the past. This, of course, is true of “Schindler’s List” as well, in which the surviving Jews who were saved by Oskar Schindler, and their relatives, place stones on his grave as the black-and-white picture turns to color. DuVernay, however, seeks to link its legacy to that of other examples of suffering in a way that’s almost academic, citing her sources as Wilkerson did. The other films find power in their remove even as they establish how the Holocaust reverberates among the living.
“The Zone of Interest” is the most radical. It asks you to spend time with the perpetrators of terror, see their human qualities and yet develop no sympathy for them. We’ve seen films about Nazis gaining a heart and learning to see the humanity in a Jewish person before: Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” is a glaring recent example, about a little Nazi boy who falls for the Jewish girl hiding in his home. This is not that. Still, I was more profoundly affected by “Zone” than by any piece of art about the Holocaust in recent memory. It had gotten under my skin.
It forces you to consider what happens when you allow these stories to become commonplace, to become rote commercial entertainment, the kind opportunistic actors sign onto to win Oscars. Death becomes background noise, the way it is for the Hösses.