The banality of evil; writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt used this phrase to describe what she witnessed at the end of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was one of the leaders of the Nazi regime in Germany and an organizer of the Holocaust. 

That phrase came to mind when I experienced the movie, The Zone of Interest, last week.  To say that I “saw” the movie would not do justice to the experience.  The Zone of interest is an historical drama adapted from the 2014 novel by Martin Amis.   It is based on real events of the protagonist, Rudolph Hoss, the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp.  The movie opens with a rather mundane scene of family life in what appeared to be the 1940’s in Europe – probably Germany based on the language the family spoke.  As they live their lives there seems to be little out of the ordinary – the very ordinary.  They go about the routine of living ordinary lives in a nice house which is surprisingly sparse – few pictures on the wall or decorations of any kind.  A servant girl who does not speak and goes about her duties without comment by the housewife.  The children go off to school. A family pet, a black dog, wanders around without interacting with the people in the house.  A little peculiar but a life not particularly out of the ordinary. 

Slowly signs creep in that perhaps not all is well.  We see a wall in the well cared for garden which is eventually revealed as the concentration camp.  We hear sounds of what is happening behind those walls; occasional gun shots, cries of pain and anguish, dark smoke pouring out of the many smokestacks.  The father takes the children to play in the river that runs through this landscape.  All is well until the father discovers something in the river and panics and pulls the children out of the water, rushing home to have them sanitized.  This turns out to be a jawbone, apparently of one of the prisoners in the camp who was exterminated.  Reality encroaching on an apparently banal family life.

The experience of watching the movie brought to mind one of the things I saw visiting the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem when I was in the Holy Land in 2008.  There was a short film on continual loop, showing a scene of people enjoying a carnival outside a concentration camp, probably in prewar Germany.  The carnival was typical of the type of carnival that used to be set up for short periods in a local park with rides and carnival music and games of chance.  I spent many happy hours in that carnival enjoying the rides and games to the extent my limited funds would allow.  The film showed people having fun and apparently oblivious to what was happening on the other side of the wall.  The Zone of Interest showed a display of hundreds, if not thousands of pairs of shoes taken from prisoners when they arrived at the camp.  This was similar to a display at the Holocaust Museum which could not fail to move those who saw it as did many other exhibits.

The question we are left with is, how could ordinary people sit by and allow such evil to grow and thrive and infect the world.  To draw on the poet W.B. Yates, do we have eyes to see the “rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”  Today, there is evidence of that rough beast at work in Ukraine, in Israel, and in Gaza, and who knows where else in the world.  It is easy to not be moved when it is not on the other side of the wall in our back yard and not be moved by the news in the media that inundates our lives.  People can be convinced that it doesn’t matter, that the ones affected are not actually human beings like us. The appearance of evil may be banal but the effect of it is not. 

On our journeys, may we be blessed to have eyes to see what is happening on the other side of the wall.