REVIEW: The Zone of Interest

[TW: This review contains information and descriptions of film content surrounding the Holocaust.]

Inspired by the 2014 book with the same title, The Zone of Interest  takes us into the political landscape of 1943 Poland. The film follows the journey of Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and his family of six living a seemingly ordinary life inside the walls of the most horrific area on the planet. Framing the film through Höss’ character is an adaptive choice by director Jonathan Glazer and is based on a real person: a high-ranking S.S. Commandant whose contributions to the Nazi regime propelled significant advancements at the concentration camp Auschwitz I. He was the longest-serving commander at Auschwitz, and the film primarily revolves around his family’s life in a villa within the camp.

The movie first depicts the Höss family living a blissful life filled with trips to the nearby lake, picnics in the sun, and small gatherings in their beguiling backyard. His wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and five children reside in their idyllic house only a 10-foot, barbed wire-lined wall away from unimaginable horrors. Their pristine home is lined with a blossoming garden and filled with a herd of anxious servants attending to their every need. While the family lives in comfort, sounds of screams, trains, and gunshots are consistently murmuring in the background. Hedwig remains dismissive of the disruptions, choosing to ignore the truth behind her privilege, but her guests often question the blazing fires surrounding the sky at night and the smoky cough-prone air. The title, “Zone of Interest”, comes from the German word “Interessengebiet”, which was a term used to depict the restricted zone around Auschwitz. (Much like the family’s eerily cultivated lifestyle.)

The shots in the film are very matter-of-fact. We see moments in their life as they happen naturally, without a direct opinion from Glazer. The audience is fitted as bystanders, set up to observe the observers. We were left to parse through the morally uncomfortable life of the family individually, making the content even more unsettling. Glazer gracefully dances around the known violence that is occurring within the camp, but there is an implication that the audience is aware of the nightmares beyond, limiting the voices of the victims to sounds from outside and alarming innuendos. This choice haunts us and leaves us waiting for the terror that the audience never directly faces. Almost like the remaining five members of the Höss family.

The film briefly features music from the University of Michigan’s own Dr. Patricia Hall’s research, who founded the project “Music From Auschwitz”. Dr. Hall brings to life lost music written and performed by Auschwitz prisoners. The music is accompanied by a deeply painful context, but a firm reminder of history and a memorial to millions of lost lives. Her group has toured Holocaust memorial centers throughout Michigan and New York, and this summer will be traveling to Vienna to perform a concert of her manuscripts.

The film stands as a reminder of the horrors behind violent perpetrators and ignorant familial bystanders, along with all the art-deco bells and whistles. Zone of Interest  is playing in theaters now in Ann Arbor.

 

More on Music from Auschwitz.

105 minutes. Rated PG-13. German and Polish with English Subtitles. 

Image thanks to Cut & Run.

REVIEW: Aurora’s Sunrise

3:00pm • Friday, Sept. 29, 2023 • State Theater

Content warning: genocide, violence against the Armenian community

Aurora’s Sunrise, directed by Inna Sahakyan (who was in attendance for a Q&A session at Friday’s screenings), tells the unlikely story of Aurora Mardiganian, a young woman who survived the Armenian genocide of 1915-1923. In 1918, Mardiganian escaped to America and through an unlikely series of events became a silent film star, playing herself in Ravished Armenia (Auction of Souls). The silent film was produced in 1919, purportedly to raise money for Near East Relief, a charitable organization working to protect refugees in the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Through its unique combination of animation, archival footage, and interviews, Aurora’s Sunrise provides a platform for the often-erased history of the Armenian genocide, while raising important questions about ethical storytelling.

For me, exploitation and revictimization were two of the documentary’s most striking motifs. Not only did we witness the horrors Mardiganian faced as a young girl in Armenia, which included watching the murders of her entire family and being repeatedly sold into slavery, but we also saw how she was forced to relive those traumas again and again for an American audience. Filming Auction of Souls was physically grueling, and when Mardiganian broke her ankle in a fall, she was forced to continue acting on it for weeks. Not only did Mardiganian re-enact her two years in exile for the film: At every screening, she shared the details of her story with private audiences of American women, enticing them to donate to Near East Relief. At a turning point in the film, Mardiganian fainted on stage at a speaking engagement. The director of Auction of Souls (who had taken legal guardianship of the young woman) told her she had ruined the event and abandoned her at a convent. Rather than providing a platform for Mardiganian’s own voice, we saw how powerful individuals in Old Hollywood co-opted her story and controlled her personal life.

Aurora’s Sunrise exposes how the Armenian community’s trauma was commodified and minimized for the sake of Hollywood spectacle, under the guise of humanitarian awareness-raising. Mardiganian’s work to spread her story and the realities of the Armenian genocide was highly impactful, raising over 30 million dollars for humanitarian efforts in the Ottoman Empire, but at what cost? The documentary raises essential questions about the ethics of representation: Can narratives of suffering be told without perpetuating harm and revictimization?

Despite the horror and injustice of her circumstances, Mardiganian’s strength and dedication to her community shine throughout the entire documentary. In her Q&A at the end of the film, director Inna Sahakyan prefaced the discussion with the fact that over 100 years after Mardiganian’s story took place, Armenians are facing renewed ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijan. I was struck by the parallels between the director and her subject, both of whom have chosen to convey deeply painful stories to removed audiences, out of a profound commitment to their people. Sahakyan urged moviegoers on Friday to share the film with friends and family, so I am using this opportunity to encourage readers to go watch Aurora’s Sunrise, and prevent this important story from being lost.

REVIEW: Prisons and Politics in America Exhibit

Tucked away in a corner of Hatcher North’s first floor is the Audubon room, named for the extremely rare volume of naturalist James Audubon’s “Birds of America” paintings that it houses. From now until March 24, it also houses the Prisons and Politics in America exhibition curated by Julie Herrada.

“Prisons and Politics in America: An Exhibit of Art, Poetry, Letters and Prison Resistance from 1890 to Today,” examines the political reasons for why people are imprisoned: for speaking out, for writing, for violating repressive laws, framed because of their color or politics, for stealing from the rich, for refusing the military draft, for whistleblowing, for attempting to overthrow the government, for standing up for a belief, or for walking over a forbidden line.

The items focus on maintaining one’s humanity behind bars, promoting political causes, and offering solidarity in support of prisoners.

 

 

The exhibit was pretty small, with a total of 39 items, but I thought it was a fitting size. The items on display were well-chosen and represented a variety of time periods, activist movements, and prison injustices. I learned a great deal by walking around and slowly taking each artifact in, reading the thoughtfully-written blurb about each.

“San Quentin Days: Poems of a Prison” by Anonymous

There were all sorts of artifacts: from protest pinback buttons to FBI Wanted posters to comics to a recipe for DIY prison ice cream. The most moving parts of the exhibit for me were the sections displaying prison writing: poetry, letters, memoirs, books. Writing is one of the most powerful tools of expression that a prisoner has, and also is one of the only ways they have to connect to the outside world. Some of the items in the collection were extremely rare and among only a few surviving copies around the world. Writing is hard enough in a comfortable space – can you imagine how difficult it must be to write from prison?

I had forgotten how far back the history of protest and activism goes. Every time a new movement starts , to me it can feel like a whole new isolated effort, which is a huge sign of my privilege. There are many who are not given the chance to forget the history to which movements are attached to because those issues affect them every single day. Rarely is there an injustice so new that there were no ancestors who had to fight it in their time too.

 

Free John Now! Poster, 1971

The exhibit sparked some thoughts for me on how activism has changed over the past century and how it has stayed the same. The language in some of the items in the exhibit was very similar to the language I see in protest posters printed today. Strong language, fueled by a sense of justice. Images of chains and bondage and upright fists underneath calls to action like “FREE [X]” and “STOP [Y].”

Attica. Poster, [197?]
The greatest difference I see is because of something that modern-day activists have that the past did not: digital technology. I am amazed at the materials people used in the past — postcards, buttons, flyers — that had to be distributed by hand and on foot. Imagine if the leaders of the 1919 labor strikes in Detroit had access to a computer at the library where they could open up a Microsoft Publisher document, put together a graphic and slap it on Facebook or Instagram for free. It has been said often in the Information Age, but I’ll say it again: our modern-day ability to disseminate information so quickly and widely is borderline magic.

Free Gary Tyler Poster, [197?]
I will say that I would have arranged the exhibit a little differently. The arrangement of artifacts seemed to maximize how much I had to walk. I also would have also liked it if items that were part of the same “movement” or at least from the same time period in history were placed close together to make the exhibit feel more cohesive. The decision to put this exhibit in the Audubon room strikes me as a bit strange, given that James Audubon was known to oppose the abolition of slavery and argued that black and indigenous people were inferior. Many of the incarcerated people mentioned in this exhibit were of black or indigenous origin and were jailed by blatantly racist judicial systems on little to no evidence, a term labeled “legal lynching”. A small acknowledgement of the fact that their stories are right now sharing the same space with the legacy of a proslavery individual would have been thoughtful.

If you’re ever studying in Hatcher, I highly recommend slipping away for a bit to check out this exhibit in the Audubon Room on the first floor. It is well worth the visit and I guarantee you’ll learn something new!

PREVIEW: Poets at Michigan, Then and Now

Ever wondered what the poetry scene here at UM was like from the Robert Frost era to now? Didn’t know that Robert Frost taught here back in the day? Want to hear some current poets read their own work while enjoying some catered snacks? I have great news and a great event for you!

April 7th, 2017 (tomorrow) from 10am-4pm, there will be three panels:
10-11:30am – Robert Frost, the Hopwood Awards, and the History of Poetry at Michigan (discussed by Nicholas Delbanco, Paul Dimond, and Donald Sheehy)
1-2:30pm – The Middle Years (discussed by Laurence Goldstein, John Knott, and Thomas Lynch)
2:30-4pm – The Art Continues: Contemporary Michigan Poets (Tarfia Faizullah or Jamaal May, Vievee Francis, and Laura Kasischke)

This event will take place in the Union Rogel Ballroom and is part of the bicentennial celebration. See you there!*

University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Bicentennial Theme Semester Event: You Are Invited

*Due to a conflict I will be attending/reviewing only the 2nd and 3rd panels, however the 1st promises to be excellent as well.

REVIEW: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection

A Tibetan book cover featuring carvings of three divine figures and intricate decal, coated in gold-colored paint. Photo courtesy of the Crow Collection website

I had never thought of book covers as anything besides dusty, worn out blankets that hugged pages of a story together, but the special exhibit at the UMMA proved me wrong. Being the first ever exhibit in the United States to showcase Tibetan book covers, Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection, this collection is currently on display until April 2 of 2017, and so I took the opportunity to visit.

Expecting to see 8 x 11 cardboard covers encased in cloth or leather, I was greeted by wooden covers that measured two feet wide and about a foot tall; 33 or so of these were either situated on the gallery walls or in showcases. As I made my way through the gallery, I took in the intricacies of these Tibetan treasures: multiple gods were carved into these covers along with dragons, peacocks, floral decals, and so on. Paint in hues of gold, red, and green embellished the slabs of wood. Some of the detailing was so intricate that the cover was designed by several people.

Tibetan book cover
Photo courtesy of the Crow Collection website
Tibetan book cover
Photo courtesy of the Crow Collection website

The elaborate nature of these book covers is understood through its purpose. For Tibetan Buddhists, books are a divine presence where the Buddha lives and reveals himself, and so to honor him, detailed book covers were frequently commissioned. Tibetan book cover design has a history of more than a thousand years, and so these covers date back from anywhere in the 11th century to the 18th century. A gem of the exhibit is a wonderfully carved and painted book cover from the early 1290s.

I left the exhibit with a newfound respect for the art of designing book covers, especially the Tibetan book covers created by Buddhists. This exhibit is currently on display until the 2nd of April from 8:00am to 5:00pm from Tuesdays through Sundays, so please come out to view this gallery!

PREVIEW: Detroitography talk + exhibit

What is Detroitography?

It is a combination of the city of Detroit & cartography/geography–an organization that curates a collection of maps focused on Detroit and its extensive history.

This exhibition of traveling maps will set down at the South Thayer Building, starting with a talk by founder Alex Hill.

Here you can get a preview of the types of wonderful maps you’ll be able to see.

When: November 1st at 12:30

(The Detroitography exhibition runs Nov 1 – Dec 15)

Where: 202 S. Thayer Building 

Price: FREE!