Nazis and mediocrity: UK directors unsettle Cannes with films tackling ‘unseen’ evil Cannes 2023

Steve McQueen and Jonathan Glazer, two of Britain’s most acclaimed and daring film directors, have enthralled Cannes audiences with a pair of extraordinary films confronting Europe’s deadly fascist past.

The directors, working independently on various projects about Nazi atrocities, both say they were inspired by the development of political extremism and prejudice.

Glazer, best known as the director of the sci-fi dystopia Under the Skin and the acclaimed gangster film Sexy Beast, says he wants The Zone of Interest, which premieres Friday evening, “for the violence in us.” to address the “potential” within each of them. He believes, he said this weekend, that it is too easy to assume that this kind of brutal treatment is a thing of the past.

“The great tragedy is that humans do this to other humans,” he said. “It is very convenient to think that we will never behave like this, but we should be less sure about it.”

His unflinching look at the proximity of the mass genocide in which German domestic life was undergoing is set in the home of Rudolf Haus, the Auschwitz camp commandant.

McQueen’s documentary, Occupied City, also turns to historical detail to bring to the fore the unpleasant facts that exist in the landscape of modern Amsterdam.

A scene from the film The Zone of Interest, directed by Jonathan Glazer.
A scene from the film The Zone of Interest, directed by Jonathan Glazer, which portrays domestic life alongside the Auschwitz death camp. Photograph: AP

Speaking to the Observer in Cannes, McQueen said: “People are not stupid. They realize on one level what happened, but somehow we need to pull ourselves out of this amnesia.

The Oscar-winning director and his Dutch wife Bianca Stigter, who wrote the screenplay, were also inspired by the rise of the New Right and the growing political polarization of Europe.

“The past may not be on the surface all the time,” Stigter said, “but some things should not be forgotten.” In today’s climate, with rising anti-Semitism and racism, it is good to be reminded of that moment in history.

Both directors confront Nazi horrors partly because witnesses to the Holocaust are not so numerous anymore. Speaking to the press on Saturday, Glazer, who is a Jewish Londoner, said he felt it was important to keep telling the story, despite his own father’s advice to him to “let it rot”, and to leave it to history. leave it.

“It is very important that we keep bringing it up and making it known; Keep showing it so that a new generation can discover it in film. The Holocaust is not a museum piece from which we can keep a safe distance. It needs to be presented with a degree of urgency and alarm,” he said.

Two British films focus with forensic intensity on what people have been able to overlook. While neither film directly depicts Nazi violence, both contain elements that are hard for mainstream audiences to see, and not just because of their bleak focus.

Glazer’s film, set near the site of a former death camp in occupied Poland, is made in German. McQueen and Stitger’s documentary runs for four hours and intentionally has no narrative structure.

In each case there are some concessions to the world of popular entertainment. Glazer’s film has a sinister, deadpan mood, while McQueen relies on the construction of horrifying crimes as modern Amsterdammers go about their lives during the pandemic lockdown.

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Zone of Interest director Jonathan Glazer with cast members Sandra Hüller and Christian Friedel at Cannes 2023.
Zone of Interest director Jonathan Glazer with cast members Sandra Hüller and Christian Friedel at Cannes 2023. Photograph: Sarah Messonnier/Reuters

“It’s about evidence of unseen things,” McQueen said. “Walking in one of the most beautiful cities, so a distortion of the fact that this happened in such a beautiful city.

“Our film is not a history lesson, it is an experience.”

Areas of interest Glazer portrays the Auschwitz death camp as well as domestic life. Its tone is almost surreal as it juxtaposes the everyday concerns of the Höss family with the mass torture, starvation, and murders happening next door. Glazer based his film on the book by Martin Amis and developed it after spending time in Auschwitz.

Wim Wenders, one of Germany’s great directors, has applauded the audacity of taking a fresh look at Nazi atrocities.

Before seeing either film, Wenders told the Observer at Cannes this week for the premiere of his film Perfect Days that tackling the Holocaust in film is risky, but worth trying.

“We should be able to look back at war. If we can tolerate the ugliness of staring at it and if we can do it with actors… we can learn for the present and for the future. But it’s a painful process.” And it could be wrong as well.”

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