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‘Zone of Interest’ and Why Great Art Has to Feel Unsafe (Guest Column)

On a recent podcast, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh pivoted the conversation to Alfred Hitchcock’s work, examining why, decades later, the auteur’s grip on audiences remains so tight. “[The reason] we still watch Hitchcock movies, and that they don’t feel as dated as some other films, is that they’re all about guilt,” Soderbergh posited. “Every Hitchcock movie is about guilt — and guilt’s not going anywhere.” If what Soderbergh says is true, then why is guilt so evergreen?

I listened to the podcast after watching Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, a masterpiece that belongs in the category of Great Art (an imperfect term, but one I stand by). I wondered why Glazer’s film — about a German family attempting to build a normal life in the shadow of Auschwitz during World War II — seemed to rise above the competition in a very strong year for movies. I believe that Hitchcock’s preoccupation with guilt, and Glazer’s sharp gaze on how we bury that emotion, play into a similar fear of ostracism. Guilt taps into something that’s difficult to express out loud. It is an “unsafe” feeling — if uttered, it could lead to being shunned. It causes us to keep secrets.

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Great Art taps into those hidden feelings, offering an emotional space that can’t exist in public life. Many well-meaning movies don’t reach greatness because they express values that are already safe to say out loud at a dinner party. “War is a terrible thing to experience,” for example, is easier to affirm than what The Zone of Interest says: We are willing to ignore atrocity to preserve our personal comfort.

Such unsafe ideas appear throughout film history. They can be found in recent titles like the Argentinean film The Delinquents (freedom from white-collar work is worth literal jail time) and the French film Saint Omer (motherhood can ignite the urge to destroy, not protect) as well as in classics like The Godfather (loyalty to your family can kill you), When Harry Met Sally (men and women can’t be friends without sex getting in the way) and The Shining (the most dangerous person in a woman or child’s life can be the husband or father protecting them). As obvious as they might seem, these ideas are difficult for us to express outside the protective bubble of entertainment: They explore value systems that disrupt the fragile order to which Western culture adheres. They threaten our own sense of safety, our intrinsic sense that we are good people and allow us to publicly live for a couple of hours in a space we privately all know exists.

One ringing example is the American cultural conversation around race. We live in a world in which the ideas that “racism exists,” or “racism is bad,” are no longer radical to express on film. They form the core of such morally safe films as Paul Haggis’ Crash and Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, and well-intentioned biopics and histories, movies that reinforce the visibility of bad versus good, movies that suggest we can neatly separate racists from anti-racists.

By contrast, Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a major commercial success that broached a truly unsafe racial idea: that Black people should never fully trust white people, even the ones who perform as allies. It’s an idea our society can’t truly accept while still functioning as is. Get Out remains frighteningly relevant because it doesn’t just remind us that racism is real: It reminds Black people they can’t escape it. Almost three decades before, Spike Lee’s similarly provocative Do the Right Thing articulated its own unsafe idea (riotous anger is warranted) so effectively that people feared the movie would incite violence.

With notable exceptions, contemporary American films tend to affirm cultural ideas that are already safe to say. It is no coincidence that this is happening while conservatism is rising, in the form of consolidated media companies, slashed DEI initiatives, banned books and the persistence of right-wing extremism. We are losing our capacity for cultural discomfort, and more crucially, we are losing the space to hold secrets in community — a key component of the moviegoing experience.

2023 was a good year for unsafe ideas becoming visible, and Oscar nominations reflect a few of those works. But we must be rigorous in holding the Academy accountable in prioritizing truly great, risky films. “Oscar bait” is a pejorative term for a reason, as it generally refers to a comfortingly familiar type of drama or spectacle. But when we reaffirm cultural values that feel safe to say out loud, the impact of that movie becomes more superficial. Great movies are the ones that leave a residue: They provide a pond for our biggest secrets to swim in.

Kishori Rajan is the senior vp of production and development at Viva Maude, a production company founded by actress and producer Tessa Thompson. Previously, she won a Peabody Award as an executive producer of the HBO series Random Acts of Flyness.

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