Those Who Walk Toward Banality

It is Oscar season, which means the forums devoted to discussions of culture and media are abuzz with predictions about winners and losers in this year’s competition for the limited attention span of the populace. In such discussions, there is always a film that is the darling of critics and commenters alike. Adjectives like stunning and arresting are thrown about like confetti on New Year’s Eve as people explain the choice for this year’s cultural touchstone.

In the early months of 2024, one film has often come up in these discussions: a film without explosions and noise but whose power seems to rest in its quiet. People seem to love the film due to this degree of subtlety. But what often remains unsaid is how the film implicates all of us in systems we rarely acknowledge, turning the camera away from the characters’ lives and towards the audience, connecting us to manifold harms that we try not to see.


If you read the synopsis of Zone of Interest before a first watch, you mostly know what to expect. The film recounts the humdrum days of a Nazi-adjacent family in the last years of World War II. But upon watching the film, one realizes that the family is more “enmeshed” rather than “adjacent," and their days are more militantly boring than coincidentally humdrum. The father of the family is the commandant of Auschwitz, and his home is right outside one of the gates to the concentration camp. Not the most humanistic setting to raise of a family, but the commandant’s wife and children seem happy enough. Even his mother-in-law is wowed by the setting, though she quickly exits the film after being unable to tolerate smoke from the furnaces beyond the gates.

In the most foundational scene of the film, the commandant has just received news that he will be transferred away from their home and to a new city. He tells his wife this news at a summer party and then leaves to think about it alone. His wife, surprised and angry at the suddenness, follows him and eventually finds him near a stream.

She asks for an explanation, but he ultimately says he has no choice and that they all will have to begin packing. He assumes that she and the children will come with him, but she pointedly tells him this will not happen. She says that he will go where he needs to go (that is, to his work) and that she will remain where she needs to be: In their house, raising their family. She tells him that this place represents everything they have ever worked for, represents the fact that they have finally made it. Their home has ample space for their kids. They are within walking distance of a creek and forests where they can all play and be away from the pollution of the city. They have servants who help them with their food and laundry. They have everything.

The father concedes. His wife is right. Their lives are too good for them to drop everything and leave. And, of course, his wife is thinking of their children, as a good parent must always do, and of the future they would inherit if they remain.

There are other compelling scenes in the film. There are scenes where a pajama-clad man with a serial number stitched to a breast silently cleans boots and organizes stray items. There is the scene where the family receives a collection of clothes and makeup, clearly taken from the new occupants of the camp outside their door, and the mother turns in the mirror to see how her new fur coat fits. The many scenes where one of the family’s Jewish servants steals food from the family and hides it amongst the concentration camp’s tools. The scene where engineers describe the construction of the furnace for burning bodies. The scenes afterwards where people are closing their doors to protect themselves from inhaling the outputs of the furnaces.

But no scene does what the scene by the river does in explaining so much about the characters and—and perhaps all people’s—life motivations and aspirations.

When the mother outlines what is so great about her life at the edge of a concentration camp, the audience cannot help but reflect on the seeming ludicrosity of the claim. What the mother sees is very different from what we see. Removed from her in both time and culture, we recognize a deep horror in everything on which her life is founded. But she only sees her prosperity and the promising future for her children. She only wants a happy life, or maybe merely a successful one, and the larger context of that life matters so little as to be almost irrelevant.


When one thinks about the family, one can easily label the father as a Nazi. But was the mother also a Nazi? Was the child? What does it mean to be a Nazi? Why does this question even matter?

In modern vernacular, the word has a particular punch to it, allowing it to do more work than it did 70 years ago. Back then, the word had a formal militaristic meaning, but today, appending the label to a person, either in our present or in our past, thereafter saves us from any deep engagement with the individual’s character. You hear the word, and your mind makes the standard substitution. Bigoted. White Supremacist. Evil.

So when I ask whether the mother or the child (or even the father) was a “Nazi,” what I am asking really is whether they were “Evil,” or less grandiosely, whether they were “bad people.” Did they have direct hands in the evil that existed around them? This, too, seems like an irrelevant question or at least an ill-defined one, but it is working towards something that I think is the film’s point.

People today are constantly concerned with whether they are “bad people,” which more formally is a concern with whether their decisions are generally on the side of a moral good. One realizes that when people reflexively disavow racism and sexism and make the default claims of “I am not racist,” or “I am not sexist,” or “I am not homophobic,” what they are truly saying is “I am not a bad person.” They might have the image of 19th century slave holder—whip in hand, determination on his face—and they are doing their best to distance themselves from that image. “I am not like that.” “I am on the right side of history.” But only the future has the power to judge our current rightness, all we can do is attempt to make good decisions given what we know of our present and of our own history.

Still this question of “bad person,” has a personal import in someone’s life. They want to feel good about themselves and their decisions. They want to believe that all the good things that happen in their lives are deserved and all the bad things are anomalous or the conspiracies of an unfair world. But from a wider perspective, the question of “badness” seems more related to the question of culpability. If something terrible occurs who has responsibility for it? Who is the person or who are the people who could have changed that situation for the better but simply chose not to?

We know that the family in the film is part of something deeply evil. But the question of whether they themselves are evil, is a question about whether they have responsibility over what they are doing. When one considers the youngest boy in the family, one can immediately recognize that he lives in this home due to the direction of his parents. If he gets toys or clothes from the concentration camp and he plays with them or wears them, then his part in the wider evil of the camp is limited. The slightly older son who is shown as a member of the Hitler Youth seems less innocent, but compounding interest is as powerful in a life as it is in the markets. You accept one new marginally evil thing each day and pretty soon you are far from where you started actively contributing to something you would have been aghast to contribute to. So the distance in my mind between the younger boy and the older boy is really one of time.

Both are situated as deeply as they can be in the structure of the world around them, given how long they have been in that structure. They are united by a passive acceptance of the terms of their world and are separated merely by the compounding effects of the years between them. Now, the radical extrapolation is that a similar thing can be said about the distance between the father and his sons.

One might think that the man who is actively seeking the creation of the furnace is "worse" than the boy playing in the dirt behind the ill-begotten home. Or that the man who is the commandant of a death camp is more culpable than the boy who "just" wears the swastika on his arm. But I would say their actions only seem to belie the similarity. All the people in the family have agency. They can make decisions that run counter to the many small decisions we see them make each day. It would simply be incredibly difficult for them to do so given the system that exists around them. The youngest boy could tell the parents that he doesn’t want the clothes. The boy in the Hitler youth could renounce his position and renounce his family. Both children are certainly less deep in this system than are their parents. Assuming they had the awareness to do so so—which is a big assumption, arguably the assumption—the children could decide not to participate, and they could run away much more easily than their father, commandant and all, ever could. And yet we consider the father as more responsible for the world around them because he is older and should know better.

This argument is not meant to demote the seeming responsibility of the father. Instead the intention is to elevate the seeming irresponsibility of everyone who finds themselves in a point in history where evils are happening which they simply choose to ignore. An individual's agency is always more easily channeled in ways that support or work within—rather than oppose—the system in which he finds himself. Whether such a person sees himself ad good or bad does not matter. It might help them sleep at night but it doesn’t engage with the problems that exist outside their passivity.


One of the first things one notices about the film is that it seems intentionally uneventful. There is no by-the-numbers rising action, and large parts of the film have an odd languishing quality that requires concentration for engagement. If I hadn’t been trapped in a movie theater and forced to sit and watch it all, I would have stopped midway to revive my attention by scrolling through Instagram.

The scenes come as though they are the requested still shots of a landscape painter. Here is the family at a lake. Here is the family eating dinner. Here are the parents sleeping on two different beds. Why make a film about such ordinary acts? The purpose is to suggest these people are incredibly ordinary. But the larger context of what they are engaged in is very abnormal. And, of course, it is the larger context that is important and is what should be paid attention to, though it rarely is.

This pairing of apparent normalcy with a background of horror harkens to Hannah Arendt’s infamous work The Banality of Evil. The parallels are so clear that one could see the movie as a fictional rendering of Arendt’s thesis. In the work, Arendt profiles Adolf Eichmann, the German operational strategist who is known as the architect of the Holocaust. She watches Eichmann in the court room during his defense and notes how queerly pedestrian he seemed, especially when he recounted crimes. There was so much bureaucracy and so much logistics in this effort to murder millions of people. And it seemed that he worked primarily with a view towards his career. At one point, she is surprised to hear him seemingly pouting about not being adequately recognized for how good of a job he did.

“Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. . . . It was precisely this... which enabled him to sit for months on end facing a German Jew who was conducting the police interrogation, pouring out his heart to the man and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank of lieutenant colonel in the SS and that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted.” (The Banality of Evil: Eichmann in Jerusalem)

The reactions to Arendt's book were mixed. People did not want to see evil as "banal," and they found it offensive that she had suggested as much. Millions of people died in the Holocaust. How could that even approach what is considered banal? People wanted to see evil as extreme and out of place, like some brightly colored snake in the Amazon that announces its danger from 10 paces away. Considering evil like this does two things. First, it gives the viewer a sense of intellectual superiority over those who commit evil. “What they were doing was clearly wrong. How could they not see it? How twisted can they be?” Second, it saves the viewer from introspecting about the actual subtlety of evil that could possibly exist in their own life.

But one could admit that Arendt’s thesis, although possibly sound, failed the modern test that demands that the idea, at least on the surface, not be objectionable lest the cursory reader (which is admittedly most of us) dismiss it on the look of its face alone.

Fortunately, Arendt had a student who could fill in the gaps left by her teacher. Elizabeth Minnich had watched the reactions to her mentor’s book, noting what people had misunderstood about it and recognizing the truth that Arendt wanted to convey. So she decided to write an addendum. Minnich’s book reversed Arendt’s two words and was titled The Evil of Banality, which Minnich felt was a more accurate summary of what Arendt was reaching for. Minnich claimed that people had gotten Arendt wrong. It wasn’t so much that evil itself was banal, but that living a banal life in corrupt systems leads to evil. Especially when one’s goal is simply to make a better life for oneself in the evil system that exists. That, in her view, is the quickest way down the path of sin.

“I have learned that when systems are turned bad, when the extraordinary becomes ordinary, it does not take a Hitler, an Idi Amin, a Jeffrey Dahmer, a Charles Manson, or any other unusual sort to become a perpetrator. It just takes a practiced ability to go along thoughtlessly—by which I mean without paying attention, reflecting, questioning—to play the game as careerists everywhere do, hoping to win if, by unquestioned rules, one plays it well.” (The Evil of Banality: On The Life and Death Importance of Thinking)

For Minnich, it is the unthinking complicity that constitutes the evil. And this unthinking complicity is, by definition, banal, given how easy it is, given that it constitutes a person merging themself with the background and seemingly disappearing within it rather than attempting to stand out or imagine something better.

In the movie, we see the truth in Minnich’s framing in multiple ways. There is the father’s disappointment in not getting a desired promotion. There is the mother’s demand that they remain in their beautiful house where she walks through the expansive manifestation of her success each day. There is the mother-in-law who marvels at the great success that her daughter has achieved. These are people who want fairly basic things. Things that people today also generally want.

Of course, there is no mention of Jewish people in this framing of familial ambition, and this omission is an accurate rendering of the world of the family. The people upon whom an oppressive system is based are always in the periphery when the storytellers of that system recount its salient historical points. So in the film, what is hidden from view reveals what is most important, and what one plainly sees are the superficial concerns of people who do not realize (mostly because they cannot be bothered to care) on whose backs their status and safety rests.


There is a contest in this film between Arendt’s and Minnich’s framings of “evil” and “banality.” The most obvious framing stems from Arendt’s claim about evil being banal. The film shows that evil need not be ostentatious and flagrant. It could exist in the simple moments of people who live within evil systems. But a more subtle framing is one derived from Minnich’s reworking. Namely, the pedestrian concerns of people in evil systems constitute the evil itself, i.e., the idea that being banal—unthinking, regimented, and easily controlled—is a conduit towards evil.

Thus the film gives us multiple perspectives from which to understand how our own lives might intersect with extensive harm. This is a reality that Americans should be familiar with, but it is also one that they routinely reject. There is an incessant desire to distance ourselves from the worse aspects of our past even though we feel quite fine accepting the profitable elements of that legacy.

Should we have empathy for the plight of the commandant’s wife? Should we feel sad about the prospect of her losing the success she feels she deserves? More generally, should we see her as expanding into more dimensions than her status as the wife of a future war criminal suggests? Maybe we should. Such a patient understanding of circumstance is precisely what we grant to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, people whose life stories were so grand and foundational to this country’s development that it seems quite wrong for their ownership of other people to eclipse all that they had accomplished. Surely, if we can humanize Jefferson, who likely applied as skilled of an analytical mindset to the construction of his slave plantation as he did to the logic of the constitution, we can humanize at least the wife in the film and likely even her husband.

Reflexively, this suggestion seems deeply wrong, and my guess is that it has to do with education in America. No American would attempt to humanize Eichmann to the extent that Robert E Lee has been humanized in history. And likening George Washington to Hitler would be blasphemous. This is because the way we are educated focuses primarily on the triumphs of the founding fathers, all the incredible good that they did, and the deep intelligence they applied to the construction of a political democracy which we now inherit. But the consequence of this patient humanization is that in addition to the political democracy of the founders, we have also inherited many of the assumptions that underlie it.

So when we look at the people today who are constantly concerned with whether or not they are “evil” or“bad people,” whether someone is “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” etc, are missing the point. Our society is deeply unequal. There is poverty that is endemic. There is an implicit social and economic hierarchy amongst people that is repeatedly reflected back at us through media. And all of the narratives behind these reflections are often claimed to not exist in some weird collective attempt to gaslight the public into believing their world is more equitable than it truly is. The question about goodness or badness in such a society is myopic. The more relevant question is whether you are working to succeed in society according to the terms it has laid out for you or whether you’re working to interrogate those terms in an effort to understand the true extent of their harm.

This is the question that the German family answered in one way, and the way they answered it legitimizes our moral judgment of them. Not merely that they were doing bad things but that their sense of good or bad was entirely blinkered and twisted by their desire to succeed in an evil system and that they did not recognize the evil in the system because it gave them access to the basic things most people claim to want in life: economic prosperity for themselves and their future progeny.

Today, the people who claim that American society is not deeply unequal—who claim that it is not racist or sexist or that no social hierarchies exist that are potential impediments to success—are very much like the people in the family. It is not that such people have direct hands in murder. Instead, such people are accepting at face value a system that gives them access to opportunity and success despite the system being based on eliminating opportunity and success from other people. They are willing to play the game according to the rules that they have been told to exist. And as long as their life stories don’t represent obvious contradictions to the philosophies behind those rules—philosophies of equality and justice—they are willing to believe that their success is well founded, that they are good people in honorable systems.


It would be too easy to think that Zone of Interest is only about the administration of the Holocaust or about some family whose life has been so enmeshed in the structure of this evil as to be totally lost. I think the film is really about us today and about how we all are very much like the people in the family.

So I lean towards Minnich’s framing even though it is more disturbing. She seems to say that if we are of sufficiently high socioeconomic status and we work to increase that status in systems that perpetuate evil, then even if we seemingly do not have a direct hand in evil—we do not shoot the bullet, we do not deny the individual health care, we do not remove money from a school system—we are complicit in the evil in a way that helps reinforce it. This seems like a radical claim. It makes responsibility so diffuse that it places it in the realm of meaninglessness. If all of us within a system are responsible for the evils of the system, then doesn’t that mean no one is truly responsible? Surely, someone must have more responsibility than everyone else; otherwise, there is no real recourse for action.

I think of a man in Alabama in 1960s America. There are "race riots" in the cities around him caused by people who march through the streets, disrupting traffic and interfering with his daily commute. Some of these people are demanding that schools be integrated, which he knows will be a drag on the school system, taking resources away from his children. He doesn’t want any of this. He just wants to live a peaceful life in the space he has carved out for himself. His society provided him with a reasonable path toward success, and he has only just achieved a fraction of it. How could he have any allegiance to people who say his success is based on a corrupt system?

When legislation comes down asking about school desegregation, he vetoes it. When a black family moves to his neighborhood, he considers moving, citing lower property values. When he hears about Johnson’s Affirmative Action programs, he thinks about the jobs that are now harder for him to get. In each case, the man’s focus is on his economic prosperity and that of his family. Though this man alone might seem inconsequential in the functioning of his larger system, his power is derived from the many people who think the way he does, the large numbers of people who also just want economic prosperity and thus calcify systems that unequally dole out opportunities for that prosperity.

Today, the modern manifestation of the “Man from Alabama” exists in the discussions of a color-blind society. It also exists in the shallowing of economic opportunity that makes the intelligent scores of youth endeavor to work for companies whose wealth is already grand and whose ultimate effects on society are not unambiguously positive. And it exists in the immigrants who come to America and merely want to succeed in the land of economic opportunity.

Indeed, arguably the greatest danger in immigrants coming to this country is not that they will take jobs away from so-called “true Americans” or that they will change some essential and intangible “American-ness” that no one can describe but which people constantly connect to Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen. Rather, the danger is that they will not change anything at all, that in an attempt to "succeed" by short-sighted metrics, immigrants will learn to embody and propagate the hierarchical framings of people and potential that have made this country so destabilizingly unequal. They will see what they need to do in order to be professionally successful, and that includes what they will need to ignore about economic inequality and pillaging, and they will strive to fulfill the apparent requirements of success. Their lives will be boring in that they will be typical, but such lives would also be implicated in extensive harms because their primary goal was to succeed within an inequitable system.


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