June 2024


Hannah Arendt Was Right
The Zone of Interest, Ripley


Miles David Moore


Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was the title of the book Hannah Arendt published in 1963, and the last four words of that title have become a common axiom. Reporting on Eichmann’s war crimes trial, Arendt presented Eichmann as a cipher, a man who could neither think nor act for himself, who committed some of the ghastliest atrocities in world history simply to be with the “in” crowd.  His sense of duty led him to be extremely efficient in establishing the mechanisms of mass slaughter; he was unconcerned about the immorality of his actions, and thought that his obedience to superior officers absolved him from guilt.

Arendt’s observations have a direct bearing on the events in The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar-winning film based on a novel by Martin Amis.  The Zone of Interest centers on the family life of one of Eichmann’s cohorts, Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess (not to be confused with Rudolf Hess, who was already imprisoned in the Tower of London at the time the film’s events took place). 

Currently streaming on Max, The Zone of Interest contains a classic, and horrifying, McGuffin.  If you were to ask Hoess (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hueller) what the film is about, they would say it’s about the trouble caused when Hoess receives a promotion and transfer, which may force him and Hedwig to leave the happy home they have created for themselves and their children. The home in question is an old and spacious brick house, with a wading pool, a greenhouse, flower and vegetable gardens tended lovingly by Hedwig and the servants, and a high brick wall that separates it from the camp where Hoess and his subordinates murder thousands every day.

The Zone of Interest is virtually a treatise proving Arendt’s hypothesis.  It is difficult to imagine any people more banal, or more evil, than Rudolf and Hedwig Hoess.  Glazer never editorializes; he merely presents them in their daily lives, beginning with their idyllic picnic with the kids by a river, accompanied by the not-too-distant sounds of guns firing, dogs barking, people screaming. 


Glazer presents every infamy matter-of-factly.  Engineers show up to sell Rudolf on a wonderfully efficient new crematorium.  Hedwig tries on a fur coat looted from a camp inmate, and hands out confiscated blouses to the maids.  Later, displeased with one of the maids, she shouts, “My husband will spread your ashes over the fields of Bodice!”  Rudolf writes a stern note to the guards, telling them to leave his prized lilac bushes alone; later, he orders the drowning of a prisoner who had been fighting over food.  We don’t see the drowning; we hear Rudolf shouting the order, the prisoner pleading, the splash of his being pushed under water, while Hedwig and the children relax in the garden.

I could go on and on, each example more horrible than the last.  There are virtually no close-ups in The Zone of Interest; everything is filmed in the far or middle distance, the better to emphasize the ordinariness of the inhumanity on display.  In the same vein, we never see any violence, but—thanks to Glazer and his masterful sound editor, Johnnie Burn—we hear it incessantly.  Like the best makers of horror films, Glazer and Burn understand that what you don’t see is far more terrifying than what you do. 

Also deserving praise is the film’s composer, Mica Levi, whose music over the opening and closing credits evokes the tortures of the
damned.  The Zone of Interest is surely one of the best feature films ever made about the Holocaust, and it demonstrates, in one fleeting scene, how inhumanity is passed from one generation to the next.  The Hoess boys are playing in the garden; the older boy locks the younger in the greenhouse and imitates the hissing sound of Zyklon-B as his brother pounds the doors to get out.

Ripley—the eight-part Netflix miniseries by Steven Zaillian, based on Patricia Highsmith’s fiction—is a less perfect fit for Arendt than The Zone of Interest.  Tom Ripley (Andrew Scott) does not and will never want to be part of any crowd, and he certainly knows how to think for himself.  He does, however, want to blend in with the crowd, particularly the crowd that has wealth and privilege.  He wants what they have, and—as previous incarnations of Ripley have demonstrated—he will stop at nothing to get it, the fear of getting caught his only qualm.


It has been too long since I’ve seen Rene Clement’s Purple Noon, the first Ripley film, which was made in 1960. But Ripley is resoundingly different from both Purple Noon and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film which remains the most famous cinematic incarnation of Tom Ripley. Whereas both Purple Noon and The Talented Mr. Ripley are drenched in dazzling Mediterranean sun, Ripley is filmed (by Robert Elswit) in the crispest, bleakest black and white, stressing the story’s noir elements.  Zaillian’s Ripley is also very different from either Clement’s or Minghella’s.  He isn’t the magnetically handsome Alain Delon or the boyishly charming Matt Damon; Andrew Scott, his face a sharply chiseled mask, is a man without qualities, a blank screen on which others can project their assumptions about him.

The details of Ripley’s life are also very different in Minghella’s and Zaillian’s films.  Minghella’s Ripley starts out as a freelance musician who must work as a cloakroom attendant to make ends meet.  Zaillian’s Ripley is a cheap con man living in a flophouse whose latest scheme—posing as a private detective working for a collection agency—has just fallen through. 

These differences carry through to the events in Italy with Dickie Greenleaf.  Both Damon’s and Scott’s Ripleys are gay, but Damon’s is ardently so.  His romantic desire for Dickie and his assumption of Dickie’s identity are deeply intertwined, the first leading to the second.  Conversely, we learn in the course of Ripley that Scott’s Ripley is gay, and eventually it becomes part of his subterfuge regarding Dickie.  But we never see him registering or expressing sexual desire for anyone.  He is motivated entirely by greed; at the end of the first episode, having just met Dickie, he is already practicing his Dickie imitation in the mirror.  (It is emblematic of Zaillian’s approach that Peter Smith -Kingsley, the character played by Jack Davenport in The Talented Mr. Ripley, does not appear in Zaillian’s film.)

Scott’s Ripley is just as much an improvisatory artist as Damon’s, and the longer running time of Ripley (nearly four times that of The Talented Mr. Ripley) allows Zaillian to go into detail about Ripley’s machinations in covering up his crimes.  Some of them are darkly funny, such as the troubles Ripley has with the motorboat off the coast of San Remo; others, frankly, grow tedious, such as his misadventures with the corpse and car of Freddie Miles (Eliot Sumner). One of his more interesting subterfuges involves his intense identification with Caravaggio, a running motif throughout the series.  In the end, however, the Ripley of Ripley is not a mastermind, or even particularly intelligent.  In this way he is very much what Arendt had in mind.  He is prone to miscalculations, many of them borne from lack of
empathy. He succeeds through sheer luck and the fact that virtually everyone he meets is as mediocre as he is.  Freddie, Dickie (Johnny Flynn), Marge Sherwood (Dakota Fanning), Herbert Greenleaf (Kenneth Lonergan), even Inspector Ravini (Maurizio Lombardi) are limited in their own ways—sheep hampered by lack of imagination or overdeveloped senses of propriety from sensing the wolf in their midst.


Except for Sumner, a weak successor to Philip Seymour Hoffman in Minghella’s film, the cast of Ripley is first-rate.  I especially liked the sturdy decency Fanning projects as Marge, and the world-weary air of Lombardi’s Inspector Ravini. The standout, however, is Scott, who has been on the verge of international stardom for years and now seems poised to achieve it.  The feral nature of his Ripley is always fascinating to watch, even when the action slows to a crawl.

While no sequels to Ripley have been announced, Zaillian has optioned all five Ripley novels, and the appearance of Reeves Minot (John Malkovich), a character who figures in the later Ripley novels, further suggests that Zaillian plans to keep going.  I can think of far worse ways to spend a few evenings than with The Reptilian Mr. Ripley, slithering between luxurious hideouts.


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Miles David Moore is a retired Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4’s Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2024 Miles David Moore
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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