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‘Our Film Shows Where Dehumanization Leads’

‘Our Film Shows Where Dehumanization Leads’
‘Our Film Shows Where Dehumanization Leads’


The director of The Zone of Interest accepted his Oscar with a startlingly pointed anti-war speech.

Rich Polk/Variety/Getty

March 11, 2024, 12:16 AM ET

The Oscars are not built for somber appeals about current events, though the show has tried in the past to balance celebration with seriousness. Sometimes that effort has worked: In 2002, after 9/11, Tom Cruise opened the evening with a vague but elegant speech about needing movie magic “more than ever,” which eased the apparent anxiety in the room. Other times, it couldn’t completely control the proceedings: In 2003, shortly after the Iraq War began, the show tried to dissuade flashy displays of emotion and even scrapped the red carpet. But the notoriously vocal director Michael Moore had other ideas, using his Best Documentary acceptance speech to criticize President George W. Bush until he was booed offstage.

This year seemed poised for another festive but dry evening, devoid of any real reminders of life outside Hollywood. But then the historical drama The Zone of Interest won for Best International Feature, and the director, Jonathan Glazer, flanked by two of the film’s producers, used his speech to deliver a stark message to the audience. “Right now,” he said, his hands shaking as he held the piece of paper on which he’d written his remarks, “we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza—all the victims of this dehumanization.”

Referencing the ongoing Israel-Hamas war has been rare for winners on the awards campaign trail this year. Protests have occurred—an activist supporting Palestine disrupted the audio feed at the Independent Spirit Awards in February, and a pro-Palestinian rally occurred outside the Oscars. But beyond wearing red pins supporting a cease-fire, those inside the glamorous theaters have rarely addressed the conflict so directly.

That is, except for the team behind The Zone of Interest, a film about how people can become numb to atrocities happening right in front of them. It follows the mundane daily routines of a German Nazi family that lives on a property adjacent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1943. Glazer designed the film to never actually show what is unfolding inside the camp, instead relying on an eerie soundscape created by Johnnie Burn and Tarn Willers—both of whom took home the Oscar for Best Sound—that hints at the horrors. The movie is a study of how avoidance is its own form of cruelty. “All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present, not to say, ‘Look what we did then,’ rather ‘Look what we do now,’” Glazer said at the Oscars. “Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst.”

And although The Zone of Interest is largely restrained, to the point of playing almost like a documentary, it does contain one significant stylistic flourish: Glazer shoots scenes of a young Polish resistance fighter in black-and-white night vision, so that when she furtively leaves apples at a forced-labor site for the prisoners inside Auschwitz, she’s dramatically illuminated. The director closed his speech by referencing the real-life woman who inspired her character. “How do we resist? Aleksandra Bystroń-Kołodziejczyk, the girl who glows in the film as she did in life, chose to,” he said. “I dedicate this to her memory and her resistance.”

The film never shows the fruit being picked up by its intended recipients, and there’s no telling whether Glazer’s words will have much of an impact beyond last night. But as he spoke, the crowd applauded him—and a few speeches later, the Ukrainian director Mstyslav Chernov received a warm reception while addressing another dire war abroad. Accepting the Best Documentary Feature trophy for 20 Days in Mariupol, which chronicles the first weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, he said, “I wish I never made this film. I wish to be able to exchange this [award for] Russia never attacking Ukraine, never occupying our cities.” Of course, that’s not possible, Chernov acknowledged. But, he explained, “cinema forms memories, and memories form history.”

And so can speeches, in their own way.



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