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In the zone with Sander

Updated: Jan 30

I guess I might be in a fairly significant minority when I say that I really don't have much time for horror stories; to my mind, there is nothing as dreadful as the awful, stark reality of Nazi Germany. Any other horror - real or imagined, pales into insignificance. And what really terrifies me about the Nazi state or, maybe more accurately, state of mind is the casual ruthlessness of the Nazis.

Through the lens of that 'banality of evil' Jonathan Glazer's new film 'The Zone of Interest' dwells on the nature of Nazi horror; we are invited to witness the weirdly idyllic family life of the murderous commandant of Auschwitz. This is a story lived out in a home that stood in the shadow of the notorious death camp that destroyed over a million lives. Despite the horror beyond the garden wall, Glazer gives us characters that appear calmly composed and frighteningly 'normal' as they go about their daily business of mass murder.

Concentration camp survivor, Primo Levi, insisted that it is ordinary people, rather than monsters, who are capable of committing atrocity. “Monsters exist but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”

By the time World War Two broke out, Adolf Hitler's Nazi party had almost every man, woman and child in uniform. The people of Germany were told that they were the 'Master Race' and their children were indoctrinated with that belief. And life in that totalitarian state demanded the people's complete dedication and devotion to their leader; they were there to do his bidding - even when it meant enacting grotesque crimes of persecution, torture and eventually mass murder... And many did so with a casual zeal and on a scale that still beggars belief.

The portraits below were taken by August Sander, who stands as one of the greatest photographers of the Twentieth Century. His work is defined by his lifelong project to capture the face of the German people. His photography had begun long before the Nazi's rise to power and his aim had been to simply capture the face of his nation. But with the emergence of Hitler's Germany, Sander was drawn into the heart of the Third Reich and the Nazi regime that came to deliver the horror of the Holocaust.

Faces of the Nazi State - photographed by August Sander

Sander's photographs appear as a powerful precursor to 'The Zone of Interest'

I'm sure you don't need a history lesson about the Holocaust but, armed with the knowledge that the faces captured in Sander's portraits were, by degree, involved in the enactment of one of the most (if not the most) horrific periods of human history is an instruction in the power of photography. The look in the eyes of these men leaves little doubt that they had become fanatical believers in the thousand year Reich.

And August Sander knew it.

August Sander self portrait 1925

August Sander's politics were to the left; his friends the 'bohemian' liberal free thinkers so hated by the Nazis. And Sander's son, Erich, was a member of the Socialist Workers party. In 1934 Erich was arrested and imprisoned. Sander's studio was ransacked by the Nazis and all stocks of his first book Faces of our Time, together with the printing plates were destroyed.

Like so many who remained in Germany throughout the war, Sander had to tread a very careful line to avoid the bully boys of the party or worse, the Gestapo - the secret police - whose men lurked in every corner of the totalitarian state.

Sander survived to bear witness to the rise and fall of a regime that grew to be the very incarnation of evil... The Nazis promised a reign that would last a thousand years. It lasted just 12. Sander's camera captured the first and the last faces of the people who brought an unparalleled reign of terror to the world. He focussed first on the faces of the Brownshirt bully boys of the late '30s and then the deathly arrogance of the SS during the war...

...And, finally, as he witnessed the death throes of the Nazi state Sander turned his camera to the last children of the Reich - child soldiers sent to the front line to die as Hitler spiralled into madness and ultimately suicide before the Russian advance on his failed state.

Glazer says that his film, 'The Zone of Interest' is not so much about examining Nazi ideology as something deeper within humanity - “You have to get to a point where you understand [the ideology] to some extent in order to be able to write it, but I was really interested in making a film that went underneath that to the primordial bottom of it all, which I felt was the thing in us that drives it all, the capacity for violence that we all have.”

I get the same feeling when I look at Sander's portraits of the Nazis. The intense gaze of his camera takes us straight into the dark and complex world the Nazis inhabited. Their intent is easily understood - the destruction of all and everybody that were 'not like them'. But the question of how they came into existence on such a very large scale is a complex one to even begin to know how to answer.


Glazer says of his research into the Auschwitz commandant and his wife - “The more fragments of information we uncovered about Rudolf and Hedwig Höss in the Auschwitz archives, the more I realised that they were working-class people who were upwardly mobile. They aspired to become a bourgeois family in the way that many of us do today. That was what was so grotesque and striking about them – how familiar they were to us...” and "...This is not a film about the past. It’s trying to be about now, and about us and our similarity to the perpetrators, not our similarity to the victims... The reason I made this film is to try to restate our close proximity to this terrible event that we think of as in the past. For me, it is not ever in the past, and right now, I think something in me is aware – and fearful – that these things are on the rise again with the growth of rightwing populism everywhere. The road that so many people took is a few steps away. It is always just a few steps away.”

Höss is gone. But Auschwitz remains. A haunting memorial to those very many who died there.

And Sander is gone. But his archive remains. Haunted by the ghosts of a regime that brought horror - real horror - to the world.

But it would be wrong to remember Sander's work just because he photographed the faces of Hitler's henchmen. August Sander produced tens of thousands of images and they are wonderful; often poetic and always beguiling.

Below is one of my personal favourites -

Despite the advent of the Leica in the mid-1920s, Sander stuck with a large plate camera to achieve the most wonderfully detailed images. Prints from his original negatives are quite spellbinding to look at. No image of his work reproduced on the internet comes close to an original print. Find an exhibition if you can..!

I urge you to look at Sander's images - both for his work as a photographer and as a genius who gave us a unique window on the human condition.

'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there' wrote the novelist L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel 'The Go-Between.' But August Sander and Jonathan Glazer stand to remind us that the phantoms of the past lurk in every soul and, unchecked, will emerge and attempt to destroy the present.

In capturing both good and evil, Sander's images remain just as relevant today as in the time he took them.

blog copyright Matthew Whiteman January 2024

images strictly copyright their respective owners

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