(RNS) — If you are like me, you have seen more than your fair share of movies about the Holocaust.

Each cinematic offering is powerful and devastating. Each film leaves its moral and spiritual thumbprint on our souls. Some of them (I am thinking “Schindler’s List”) have become part of both American cultural history and Jewish history itself.

But very few movies about the Holocaust affected me in quite the same way as a recent film, “The Zone of Interest,” written and directed by Jonathan Glazer. The movie is loosely based on the novel by Martin Amis and has been nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay, as well as a European Film Award for best film, among many other nominations.

“The Zone of Interest” is about Auschwitz. It views Auschwitz (both place and symbol) not only as a unique horror, but as a demonic outgrowth of the corporate mentality and careerism.

“The Zone of Interest” is about Rudolf Hoss, who was the commandant of Auschwitz. He and his family have an idyllic life in a villa that is on the other side of the wall from the concentration camp. They go fishing and swimming. His wife, Hedwig, tends the garden.

Hoss approves the construction of a new crematorium. At one point, when his children are swimming in the river, Hoss notices human remains in the water, and he admonishes camp personnel for their carelessness. He cannot allow death to touch his family. There must be a wall, both physical and symbolic, between his “day job” and his family life.

But those walls are permeable. Hedwig has a fur coat that she got from “Canada,” the euphemism for the place in Auschwitz where the plundered goods were stored. Her mother comes to visit. She muses about a Jewish woman that she knew, and wonders if she is in the camp on the other side of the wall.

The flames and the smoke from the crematoria awaken the older woman. She departs in the middle of the night, leaving a letter for her daughter — the contents of which are unrevealed, but which we might imagine.

So, yes: That is the horror of the film.

But the film is about something deeper. It is about what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton called “doubling.” We might call it “compartmentalizing” — how some people can commit atrocities in one area of their lives while continuing to maintain normal social relations in their domestic sphere. It is about how we make inner bargains with ourselves that allow us to tolerate our participation in even minor ethical infractions. Lifton developed this idea through interviews with former Nazi doctors, as well as with terrorists belonging to the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult. 

Where is the “doubling” here? Hoss presents himself as a loving father and husband. But there is a wall in Hoss. On the other side of that wall is a man who is a cog in the genocide machine. He wants to put a wall between his family life and the practice of death. But that wall revealed itself to contain many cracks and fissures.

But, second, the film is about careerism. Hoss receives news that he is going to be transferred. His wife responds in a “normal” way. We are happy here. How will the children adjust? Perhaps we will just see each other on weekends, and have a commuter marriage.

Hoss could have been an executive with IBM — and that is the point. If you want to be successful in your career, you must be prepared to be mobile. It just so happens that he is in the evil industry.

Two other cultural moments went through my mind.

First: the film “Conspiracy,” starring Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci, which is about the 1942 Wannsee conference that planned the Final Solution. Over the course of several hours, Nazi officials and industrialists met in a beautiful villa outside Berlin to chart the course of the destruction of European Jewry. By industrializing genocide, they would make it more efficient — certainly more efficient than the “Holocaust by bullets,” with the Einsatzgruppen rounding up Jews and shooting them in pits.

The men at that meeting were mediocre men. Their conversation was no more enticing than your average board of trustees meeting. Hannah Arendt called it “the banality of evil.”

All of these men had families and loved ones.

Second: an episode of the HBO series “The Sopranos” — “College.” Tony is taking his daughter, Meadow, on a college visit. She asks him, point-blank, if he is in the Mafia — which Tony denies, while admitting some of his income is from illegal gambling.

As Meadow is in the college admissions office, Tony drives around. Quite by chance, he spots “Febby” Petrulio, who has entered the witness protection program. Without giving it a thought, Tony executes him.

Tony is a loving father and he is also a cold-blooded killer. Tony is in therapy to address his inner turmoil — that he commits outrageous acts of evil, and he knows it. Shades of Lifton’s “doubling.”

Lifton figured it out. “Doubling” is not a perverse distortion of human character; it might even be emblematic of human nature. Judaism understands it well: the inner battle between the yetzer ha-tov, the good inclination, and the yetzer ha-ra, the evil (or, not-so-good) inclination.

And, it is hardly just the Holocaust. It is racism as well — and profoundly so. Consider the scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in which Scout recognizes one of the racist thugs as the father of one of her classmates. She innocently “exposes” him; he is ashamed and skulks away.

Perhaps this is one reason why members of the Ku Klux Klan wear robes and hoods. It is not only to appear ghostlike in order to frighten victims. It is not only to be anonymous. Perhaps it is also to hide their identities — from themselves.

I read these words in Dan Stone’s book “The Holocaust: An Unfinished History.” In one haunting passage, he explains the utter plainness of the killers:

As Christopher Browning showed in his path-breaking book Ordinary Men (1991), even the least likely among them, like a group of middle-aged policemen from ‘red’ Hamburg, rapidly turned into hardened killers. Furthermore, as other historians have shown since, their numbers were far greater than those of the Einsatzgruppen and thus, as the backbone of the killing operations, they killed more people than the Einsatzgruppen. Even more remarkable, they exemplify the process whereby ordinary men became killers quickly and with apparent ease…

A combination of indoctrination, a routinized brutalization and a sense of obligation to comrades, superiors and the nation facilitated turning family men into mass murderers.

In our time, these words are no less raw, and no less real. Let us not underestimate the ability of human beings to “double” themselves — to know that each of us lives with “zones of interest.”

Similarly, let us also not underestimate the desire of human beings to “single” themselves — to seek inner wholeness, to locate a zone of integrity, to be one and internally unified — to be echad, as God is echad.



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