Cannes 2023: German Past and Turkish Present

Peter Paul Huth on films by Jonathan Glazer and Nuri Bilge Ceylan
The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer)

The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer; © Courtesy of A24)

German Past

The English film "The Zone of Interest", a free adaptation of the eponymous novel by Martin Amis, was eagerly awaited in the competition. It centres on the figure of Rudolf Höss, SS Obersturmbannführer and camp commander at Auschwitz. Director Jonathan Glazer, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses entirely on Höss' family life, his relationship with his wife Hedwig and his five children. Glazer is scrupulously careful not to put the horror of the concentration camp into the picture, making it perceptible only through the soundtrack.

Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller with pigtails pinned up in BDM style) fulfils her dream of a 'Paradise Garden' with vegetable beds and a greenhouse. Right behind the wall the horror of the concentration camp begins. We hear dogs barking, orders being shouted and shots fired. Unaffected by the reality surrounding her, "Mutzi" Höss, as her husband calls her, enjoys the spoils of the prisoners  posing in front of the mirror in a fur coat. Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel with a radically shaved hairline very close to the historical figure) shows himself to be an attentive family father who reads fairy tales to the girls when they cannot fall asleep. Discreetly, he occasionally indulges in sexual services by one of the imprisoned women.

The commander and his wife are observed from a distance like in a panopticon. Only when Höss is assigned to the KZ headquarter in Oranienburg emotions break out. The wife does not want to part with her house and garden by any means; for him, nothing is more difficult than saying goodbye to his horse. The fact that the character of Höss, who seems incapable of any self-reflection, vomits on the stairs after a lavish SS party could be interpreted as a rare moment of physical disgust in the face of the horrendous reality of his successful camp administration.

The historical relevance of the subject as well as the restrained cinematic approach which refrains from any concentration camp voyeurism was met with great enthusiasm by most critics, as was to be expected. A sceptical minority were put off by the  minimalist pretentiousness of the film, in the way it puts a didactic exclamation mark on the scenes.

As Hannah Arendt already knew, the Nazis were less sadistic psychopaths than bureaucratically 'correct' administrators of mass murder. Quite capable of having an affectionate family life, a passion for animals and classical music. Jonathan Glazer seems to assume that the audience needs to be made aware of this truth once again.

Turkish Present

Anyone who saw Nuri Bilge Ceylan's masterpiece "Uzak" (Distant) 20 years ago will never forget how the Turkish director, hardly known at the time, conquered the festival, won the Grand Jury Prize at the first attempt while his two protagonists won the Actor's Prize. Since then, Ceylan has been invited to the competition with all his films and has been awarded several times. With "Winter Sleep" he finally received the Palme d'Or in 2014. In this respect, a film by Ceylan always promises to be a cinematic highlight. His new work with the mysterious title "Kuru Otlar Üstüne" (About Dry Grasses) follows on in some ways from "Uzak".

Both films take place in winter, this time the setting is not Istanbul but a Kurdish village in the remote south-east of the country. The film begins with a man trudging lonely through the snow on his way to the school where he has been teaching art for four years. The loneliness of the opening will accompany the teacher Samet (Deniz Celiloglu)  as a leitmotif throughout the film. He struggles with the remote area and dreams of returning to Istanbul. When he meets the English teacher Nuray (Merve Dizdar), his individualistic concept of life is put to the test. Accusations of abuse and opportunistic colleagues establish a surprising parallel to the German film "The Teachers' Room" by Ilker Catak.

Ceylan goes to the length of more than three hours to tell the story of lost hopes and dreams, of failed illusions and the stubborn desire for change. It is no wonder that the characters remind us of a theatre piece by Chekhov, stuck in the provinces and dreaming of moving to the big city, when Nuri Bilge Ceylan confirms, "I always think of Chekhov". On the other hand, the film unfolds a detailed social panorama that casually brings up the political conflicts in the Kurdish region. In a long dialogue the central question of political activism versus maintaining a sceptical distance is discussed. As always in Ceylan's films, the women have a clearer understanding of life, while the men find it difficult to break free from their intellectual apathy. This is especially true for the character of the teacher, who in his passive ambivalence does not exactly endear himself to the audience.

At the end, the snow has suddenly disappeared and the teacher comments off-screen the fleetingness of summer, when the grass hardly has time to turn green before  the meadows will dry up again. With particular sensibility Ceylan captures the disillusion of Turkish intellectuals whose hopes for political change have again been disappointed by the outcome of the recent presidential elections.