Tuesday 26 March 2024

Injurious Visions: The Zone of Interest, Sniper Elite, and How We Look at Nazis


I was trying to work out why Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest made me want to play Sniper Elite 5. There are a couple of obvious answers to that question: for one thing, the Sniper Elite series is about killing Nazis, and Glazer's film, with its tight focus on the family life of Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Hoss, follows a particularly dislikable bunch of those guys; for another, there is a scene fairly early in the film which is extremely reminiscent of the environmental kill for Major Jaan Trautmann in the Desponts sur Douve mission in SE5. But I think the similarities between the two texts go a little deeper than the surface, and those similarities can tell us a lot about where Glazer chooses to focus his camera in this extraordinary film, and why he places focus there. 

Focus itself, of course, is a key concept in the Sniper Elite games - focusing binoculars to tag targets, emptying the lung to focus shots and guarantee lethality. Jim Morrison's poetry is on the whole not very good without Krieger, Manzarek and Densmore backing him up, but the erstwhile navy brat did come up with a really good line about sniping: 'the sniper's bullet is an extension of his eye. He kills with injurious vision.' Rebellion's WW2 game series does an excellent job of making protagonist Karl Fairburne's scope feel like exactly that kind of lethal ocular extension. 

Glazer and his Director of Photography, Lucas Zal, wanted to do something similar in The Zone of Interest, the latter telling IBC365 that 'we wanted the camera to be like an eye'. To achieve this, they rigged up a network of ten partially hidden 6K digital cameras in their reconstruction of the Hoss' home and garden, a process which Glazer wryly describes as 'Big Brother in the Nazi house', then retired to a concrete bunker from which they relayed directions to a team of focus pullers working in the house's basement. Another similarity between the film and the game there: just as the player of a Sniper Elite game spends most of their time moving Karl around the map in third person perspective, so Glazer and his crew remained at one remove from their actors, resulting, as the IBC article puts it, 'in a uniquely disembodied form of authorship'. 

Watching the film, it's immediately obvious that Glazer and Zal were successful. As the camera(s) guide(s) us around the Hoss villa and garden, or on the family's trips around the countryside, we feel like a lurker, a voyeur. We feel as if we, too, are in the surprisingly narrow corridors of the Commandant's house, or following him through the tunnel that connects that house to the camp (secret tunnels, of course, are also a feature of the SE series). That house and garden are another of the major achievements of Glazer and his crew. In an interview with A.Frame, producer James Wilson described 'how to make the physical place' as one of the biggest challenges they faced. Initially planning to film in the historical Hoss haus, they quickly found that venue unsuitable, and so decided to renovate a derelict house near Auschwitz (still within the actual 'zone of interest', or interessengebiet, surrounding the todeslager) as a stand in. As Wilson puts it: 'I've never seen a set like it. The entire garden was built and grown out of nothing. Trees, plants, beehives.' The house, too, is lovingly recreated: if you came across it, shot with the photographer's back to the death camp, on an Instagram like Modernism in Metroland or Architectonic Travels, you'd give it a heart react immediately for its clean lines and use of glass. In this way, by painstakingly recreating their environment, Glazer and his crew not only recreated the experience of the Hoss' themselves (Rudolf is described admiringly as 'an ideal settler-farmer', and Hedwig boasts about her garden to her visiting mother), but they also once more echo the Sniper Elite series, one of the key visual pleasures of which is its loving recreation of World War 2 era environments. 

In Sniper Elite 2, the earliest entry in the series most players will encounter these days, that visual pleasure is somewhat muted and melancholy, the game's action being mostly set in the ruins of immediately post-war Berlin. Things begin to get more colourful in the next game, set in the North African campaign, with Karl palling around with the Long Range Desert Group and exploring some impressively arid environments, but there is still something harsh about them. Sniper Elite 4, though, in which the action moves to Italy, moves into full pastoral mode. From the first level, in which Karl takes a delightful evening walk on the Mediterranean island of San Cellini (a walk enlivened, of course, with plenty of opportunities to creatively dispatch those goddam Nazis) to the conclusion of its Deathstorm DLC, in which he destroys a nuclear reactor in the picturesque (and fictional) South German city of Steigerloch, the maps really are a pleasure to traverse, enhanced by little touches like the movement of the long grass where Karl takes cover, the recreations of Italian buildings, which run the gamut from simple peasant dwellings to ornate monasteries, and the way in which the game renders light. By the fifth and most recent instalment in the series, set mostly in France and around the German Atlantic Wall, graphical improvements make the environments - which include a French chateau and its extensive grounds, a Mont St. Michel style abbey (for my money, the best single map in the entire series), and the island of Guernsey - a positive joy to spend time in. At least, until you see the swastikas. 

Because, of course, as beautiful as these environments may be, they're also riddled with evil. Steigerloch, for all its timber-framed charm, is sitting on top of a reactor tasked with producing radioactive dust to scatter from the air on the D-Day landing parties. On charming, picturesque Guernsey, an officer from the Organisation Todt is building an artillery battery using slave labour. The farmland around Desponts-sur-Douve, the very image of la France Profonde, has been ripped up with Nazi trenches, where Karl finds the body of a tortured Allied radioman. And everywhere, again and again, you see the symbol of the greatest evil of the twentieth century. The games tend to avoid any direct mention of the Holocaust itself, but it is there, lurking behind events, just as it is in Glazer's film. The Nazi officers Karl takes out might instal themselves in fine chateaux, but however ornate their surroundings, they can't hide their true thuggery. The ballroom in Oranienburg, where Hoss attends a party towards the end of The Zone of Interest, is a dead ringer for a ballroom in level 2 of Sniper Elite 5 in which the player has a chance at pulling off an impressive triple kill. To Hoss, who has just been informed that the operation to exterminate the Hungarian Jews will be named after him, those are rookie numbers: he spends the time in his ballroom musing on how much Zyklon B it would take to kill all his fellow partygoers. 

This is the most profound similarity between Glazer's film and the Sniper Elite games: the way in which they visually seduce us with pastoral imagery while the true evil squats just out of frame. And the fact that the pastoral is what's used to seduce us is important, because pastoralism was a key element of the Nazi aesthetic. When Hoss, the ideal settler-farmer, goes horse riding or kayaking with his children, he is LARPing as a Romantic Aryan aristocrat, a man at home in nature, whose keen ear for birdsong can make out the cry of a heron against the interessengebiet's constant hum of industrial murder. When Hedwig points out all the different plants with which she (or, more likely, her slave labour gardeners) have made the wasteland bloom, and boasts to her mother about how her Rudy calls her 'the Queen of Auschwitz', she positions herself as the embodiment of the Nazi Lebensborn (literally 'Fount of Life') program, drawing an implicit parallel between her personal fertility and that of her garden. When we, as Karl, stop for a moment and listen to the sound of a river in the Rough Landing DLC, we may not be buying in to the illusion to the same extent as Rudolf or Hedwig but we, too, are allowing ourselves to be seduced, to imagine ourselves for a moment as the subject of a Caspar David Friedrich painting, a wanderer above a sea of blood, imagining that some core, higher aspect of ourselves remains untainted by the dirty business of killing. We home in on the sounds of nature and tune out the sounds of death, just like Hoss hearing his heron. And then, just like Hoss, we get back down to business.

It's easy to say, of course, that it's different for us. For one thing, we aren't killing real people. But then again, neither were the Nazis. Their whole ideology was based on denying the humanity of their victims, reducing them to an inferior status, whether as 'degenerates', 'useless eaters' or 'lower races', to make them easier to kill. In the scene where Rudolf brags to Hedwig about being brought back for his namesake Aktion, it's frighteningly clear that if he ever did see the inmates of his camp as being human, he now sees them only as numbers he wants to increase. And as his comment about gassing the other guests makes clear, he may have crossed the line to seeing even his fellow Nazis as a chance to increase his high score. Nothing, for Rudy, is real anymore but the numbers. The line has to go up, and if that means, as Aktion Hoss meant, killing 450,000 people in three months, that's just a challenge. If it means running the crematoria continually, that's just German efficiency. What does it matter to you? When you got a job to do, you gotta do it well. 

So no, pointing out the people we despatch in all their gory, kill-cam glory are simulacra won't get us very far off the ethical hook. And we won't get much further off by pointing out that those simulacra are very much the baddies. We're still playing a game about killing, and we're still enjoying the thrill. 

I played Sniper Elite 5 for the first time in a long time after watching The Zone of Interest, partly to research this article, partly just to scratch an itch. The question I was trying to answer in returning to the game was, largely, the one I've tried to answer in this essay. But I also, quite by chance, got an answer to another question which I wasn't expecting. One thing that's kept me away from this series in recent months has been the main context in which, of late, I've encountered the word 'sniper', in reports of the atrocities in Gaza - something which, as Glazer's Oscar acceptance speech made clear, was on his mind as he filmed The Zone of Interest. To quote from James Wilson's interview again, the film seeks 'to put you in that perspective and ask the viewer, ask us - including me - are we closer to that perpetrator perspective? To look for the similarities rather than the differences in that perpetrator, rather than the perspective of the victim. Which, of course, should be uncomfortable and a dangerous question.' 

I hadn't wanted to play the Sniper Elite games much in the past few months because I didn't want to spend my leisure time occupying the perspective of the kind of soldiers who take potshots at injured people outside hospitals. I didn't feel much like getting the Vehicle Buster award when it would remind me of the people who blew up the ambulance which tried to save Hind Rajab. I didn't want to think of myself as being close to someone who takes pleasure in shooting to maim - who takes pleasure in shooting children. I didn't want to ask if I was closer to that perpetrator perspective. But I got the answer anyway.

Shortly after seeing The Zone of Interest I replayed 'Spy Academy', the SE5 level where you infiltrate the Abbey of Beaumont St Denis, on it's Mont St Michel style island. At one point, I had a tricky shot to make, on an enemy sniper who kept moving from side to side, his head disappearing behind the crenellations of the turret he occupied. I got Karl into cover, then engaged the scope, switching from third to first person mode. I zoomed in the sights on the modified Mohsin-Nagant as far as it would go, then focused, releasing air from Karl's lung until the cursor hanging over the target turned red. And then, just as I fired, the bastard moved. I knew I'd missed. But the kill-cam engaged anyway, and I followed the bullet on its trajectory, until it collided with the thinnest sliver of the sniper's head as it ducked behind the stone, his body now gone transparent so I could see in X-ray clarity as it burrowed through skull and brain to exit through his cheekbone. And I cheered, because I had made an extremely difficult shot. And then I stopped cheering, and logged out, because I realised something. 

Why shoot children? 

Because they're smaller targets, and a smaller target is harder to hit. It requires more skill. Why shoot children? To show off that skill. It's just a challenge. What does it matter to you? When you've got a job to do, you've got to do it well.  Why shoot children? For the bragging rights. 

And if you don't think of them as human, it's very easy to do that. As easy as it is to look at a ballroom full of people and work out how much gas you'd need to kill them, or to tell one of your servants you could have your husband scatter her ashes in a moment of rage. Or to make TikTok videos mocking the kids that your snipers are shooting for bragging rights. 

Focus. Perspective. The vision to injure. It's a question of where you choose to look, and what angle you look from. 

Hollywood has been looking at Nazis for decades now. The Polish artist Piotr Uklanski's piece The Nazis consists of 164 photos of famous actors like Rutger Hauer, Harrison Ford, and Clint Eastwood dolled up in SS uniform to play Nazi officers. Not everybody included in the artwork appreciated this - the Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski, angered by what he saw as Uklanski's insinuation that he was an actual Nazi, slashed some of the photos, including his own, with a sabre borrowed from the set of a historical drama, in an act of vandalism which itself comes close to being a weird kind of performance art. But Uklanski's intention was never to imply that actors like Steve McQueen or Ralph Fiennes held secret fascist sympathies, it was to make a point about the way cinematic representations of the Third Reich lull us into a false sense of security, by taking its crimes and turning them into entertainment; by putting a matinee idol in a fascist uniform, do we imbue thugs like Hoss with a glamour they don't deserve? 

Avoiding that glamourisation was one of Glazer's key goals in making The Zone of Interest. A lot of reviews of the film have referred to Hannah Arendt's concept of the banality of evil in discussing the way in which Hoss, Hedwig and their families are depicted. Hoss isn't the classic Hollywood image of the SS officer with duelling scar, eyepatch and Wagner obsession, as gleefully parodied in the Smith and Jones 'Nazi Generals' sketch: he's a boring, pallid weirdo with a crap haircut whose wife only stays with him for their big house at the edge of a death camp, and the fur coats the guards take from the inmates. He's a loser. 

The Sniper Elite franchise also tries hard to avoid glamourising Nazis. Unlike, say, the Far Cry series, the games steer away from the idea of opposing Karl with charismatic villains. Indeed, the one time something like this was tried, in the DLC for the series' third instalment, which ends with Karl fighting a duel against his German equivalent, a sniper planning to kill Churchill at the Casablanca Conference, it wasn't entirely successful: the villainous Raubvogel is simply nowhere near as interesting as the labyrinth through which you pursue him. Instead, the antagonist characters in the series tend to be fulminating functionaries or duplicitous sneaks, whose role is to deliver exposition in cutscenes while the real challenge comes from Karl having to make near-impossible shots, and the nearest thing to end-of-level bosses are the occasional tanks Karl has to take out. The real challenge isn't the enemies, but the environment, because when you get down to it, these games are not so much action shooters as puzzle games which involve shooting. Perhaps that's why Rebellion recently branched out by launching a board game version of the series, which actually goes even further down the road of deglamourising its antagonists by removing any Nazi iconography, and referring to them simply as 'the enemy', a decision which has not been uncontroversial. 

Glazer's film, too, has been criticised for its omissions, with both politics professor Peter Rutland and Israeli film critic Avner Shalit describing it as 'a Holocaust film without any Jews'. It's hard to see these as good faith criticisms, however, with Rutland in particular only writing after Glazer's Oscar acceptance speech, and dropping in frankly perplexing lines like 'What the satiric movie Saltburn does for the English upper classes, The Zone of Interest is doing for National Socialism', a sentence which strongly suggests Rutland fails to understand not only Glazer's film but also Saltburn, the English upper classes, the Nazis, cinema and the basic concept of satire (I hope, for his students' sake, that he's stronger on politics than film criticism, but that's a lot to get wrong in one sentence). 

But even if we assume critics like Rutland and Shalit to be objecting to the film, rather than Glazer's speech, this is an absurd criticism because the fact we rarely see any of the camp's inmates is the whole point of the film. Hollywood has looked at the Holocaust for decades now, and it has always struggled to depict it, because such an enormity is as hard to face truthfully in cinematic grammar as it is in the grammar of video games. One thinks about what Stanley Kubrick is reputed to have said about Schindler's List: 'The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler's List was about six hundred people who don't.' Sources close to Kubrick dispute the quotation, which appears in the memoirs of his Eyes Wide Shut co-writer Frederic Raphael, but it haunts us because it gets at a truth about the difficulty of depicting the Holocaust in cinema, which is that, fundamentally, you can't. The industrialised murder of over six million human beings is too big to depict in the terms of conventional narrative. You have to choose a part of it to focus on, and tell only that story. 

One of the only other Holocaust films which comes close to depicting the real horror, Tim Blake Nelson's The Gray Zone, does so by focusing on the sonderkommando, the Jewish prisoners who helped operate the gas chambers and crematoria, and the moral, physical and psychological trauma this causes them. There's a sonderkommando in The Zone of Interest, too: he's the guy with the wheelbarrow who delivers clothes taken from executed inmates to the Hoss house, including the fur coat Hedwig tries on and poses in. The fact he is one of the few Jews we see in Glazer's film is part of the point. Rudy and Hedwig have built themselves a perfect little world, with a nice big wall around it. And on the other side of that wall, people are starved, and abused, and suffer, and are murdered systematically. And the only people from that side of the wall who are allowed to pass, briefly, into Rudy and Hedwig's perfect little world are those who provide them some service, and even then only temporarily, and on the condition that they keep their mouths shut and do as they're told. 

And, because their world was so perfect, I wanted, in a way, to join them there. I wanted to climb over the wall, or out of the secret tunnel, or from their jetty by the river, and creep through the long grass, and the smart corridors of their house, and pour poison in Hoss' birthday schnapps; or slit his throat on the stairs in Oranienburg; or zero the sights of the Mohsin-Nagant on his absurd little head as he swam with his family. Because I, too, was seduced by their perfect world, and wanted, for one beautiful moment, to be the most important person in it. 

Friday 22 March 2024

Video Verse

 Because I am an extremely disorganised individual who sucks at co-ordinating things, I forgot to add video for my last few poems, so here they are, direct from YouTube: 

First, and most recent, here's my newest poem, from today, Keep Lists:

Second, here's Paycheck (The Ballad of Workplace Psychosis):

Here's Slough, which I note I haven't even got the text of on here yet: 

And finally, from all the way back last year because I am such a ding-a-ling, here's English Sounds Like Injury in Arabic

I will, I promise, get around to posting some of my bizarre synth/sampling experiments on here, but they can also be found on my YouTube channel if you want to hear the results of me faffing around recording and remixing rain, rubbish, and random gibberish. I recorded something weird AF the other night, which I will be posting up as soon as I come up with a video which fits. 

And remember: if you appreciate my work and would like to reward me for making it, you can do so by donating to my tip jar

Keep Lists


Keep Lists

No paper could be taken off the floor,

so scraps were torn theatrically

and tossed in plastic bins:

contraband confetti scattered

in the name of confidentiality - 

but we committed house numbers

and postcodes to our memories,

browsed Google Maps and bus times,

wrote things down in breaktime notebooks;

looked for patterns in their spending,

for political donations or the papers 

that they took. We built up profiles,

checked their local papers’ websites

for photos showing how they looked,

obituaries of relatives we could obliquely

reference and listen for the slight

catch in their breath before we moved on

to the next stage in the bullet-pointed script

our bosses called Real Conversations.

Others copied out the letters in their names,

reshaped them into glyphs we ripped

between their hang-up and the next shriek

through our headsets set us copying

again. No paper could be taken

off the floor. In India, the management banned pens.

Saturday 16 March 2024

Paycheck (The Ballad of Workplace Psychosis)


I'll buy a hatchet with this paycheck

and on my first Monday back

I'll take it out and split the forehead

of that prat who parrots phrases

from the shit he sees on TV,

see his eyes light up completely 

for the first time in his life, 

before they shut down for the night

and switch to mental QVC. 

I'll pull the hatchet from his forehead

and I'll walk across the floor

while my fellow workers book it

(this is not what they're paid for)

until I find myself outside the room

with a poster by the door

proclaiming loudly END THE STIGMA,

acting like we're not the cause

of the very mental illness 

which has brought me to the door

that my Team Leader locked the second

she heard screaming on the floor

but which, I know, is made of cheap wood,

and cannot, for long, endure

repeated impact from my hatchet

‘til its handle hangs ajar

from the door it used to open

and I know the look of horror

that stains her eyes on seeing me

is something new to her:

wish I could say it was for me,

but I'm glad. It's good to share.