Hedwig walks her ageing mother Linna into the large garden where the grandchildren are playing…
LINNA: It’s huge. I’m speechless.
HEDWIG; It’s all my design. All the planting and everything. The greenhouse, the gazebo at the end.
LINNA: Is that a pool?
HEDWIG: Yes. I have gardeners. I couldn’t do it alone.
LINNA: With a slide? Oh Heddy.
(There’s a child-sized wooden row boat on the lawn next to the pool).
HEDWIG :Do you like it?
LINNA: Of course I like it. How could I not?
HEDWIG: This was a field three years ago. We just had the lower garden by the street. And the house had a flat roof.
LINNA: It’s hard to believe. (Linna turns). And that’s the camp wall?
HEDWIG :Yes, that’s the camp wall. We planted more vines at the back to grow and cover it. LINNA: Maybe Esther Silberman is over there.
HEDWIG :Which one was she?
LINNA: The one I used to clean for. She was the one who had the book readings.
HEDWIG: Oh, yes.
(Screenplay Zone of Interest by Jonathan Glazer based on the novel by Martin Amis.
Zone of Interest is a film that I suspect few will see; yet it is nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA. My experience of it was one of utter horror, staring into the blank face of evil, arguably the most uncomfortable watch that I have ever endured. Most people haven’t heard about the film – it is subtitled and largely in German.
In the excerpt above, we witness how detached from normal life Hedwig and her family have become. Of course, the extent of this detachment reveals a psychopathic nature, but, nevertheless it is a reminder of how far people go to block out the sight of horror. Hedwig is the wife of Rudolf Hoss, SS commander at Auschwitz.
Of course, this is horror of their deliberate making and approval, something barely imaginable, yet part of our modern history in which millions were murdered. Hedwig’s home sits next to the camp fence, the contrast in life experience could not be more stark, yet both share the same polluted air and weather.
Unless you are psychopathic yourself (you are not, if you are reading my blog!) it will be a harrowing experience to watch this film. We do not witness any violence, there is no need to, we hear the regular gunshots, the sounds of women being separated from their children, new arrivals by freight train and the smoke billowing from the chimneys.
Whilst being a poignant, historical reminder of crimes against humanity that we must never forget, it is also perhaps a metaphor for how I (and we all) manage to avoid looking at horrible things. Whatever our life circumstances, it’s not Auschwitz. Our relative peace and security, comfort, good fortune are not experienced by all. As humans, we have to turn away from horror in order to survive, we cannot constantly look without becoming consumed by it. Social media rapidly reveals the extremities of life around the world into the palm of our hands, we have to scroll past or choose not to look. I have no answers (well, few..) for this; other than it is our common experience and we all filter things out … we have to.
For most of us, we simply want to ensure that our lives remain good, prosperous and that our families have and maintain a sense of security in a broken and fragile world. I do not have a single client who is determined to simply amass as much as they can, which I suspect is a criticism of those who refuse to seek financial advice. The sort of people I work with have a sense of what is ‘enough’ and are not seeking to outdo the billionaires.
The grass is sometimes greener on the other side, but the Faustian price of it is always too high for anyone who wishes to have a connected life. We may have a philosophical opinion on the differences between needs, wants, desires and greed; the truth, as is often the case, is hard to distinguish except at the extremities.
Good financial planning is full of your goals for life; great financial planning is infused with your values as well.
As for the film, I believe that it is important, for precisely the reasons you imagine but it is a very difficult experience. As I imagine is intended, I did not care for any of the central characters, I didn’t even want to look at the screen as ‘matters were discussed’ as though merely regular business meetings. It was an endurance test for the viewer, but of course is nothing compared to those who briefly resided on the other side of the wall.
Sitting in the front row of the audience, he turned to see refugees standing around him, the feeling of raw emotion suddenly rising and filling his being as the magnitude of one man’s efforts had resulted in simple, raw, exposed humanity – life.
I suspect that you have heard about or may even remember seeing the moment that Nicholas Winton is met with an audience of his rescued refugees, as they rise to greet the man. The moment will likely be branded into your mind; it’s truly unforgettable.
There is something about a mild-mannered stockbroker from Maidenhead who not simply changed lives, but made them possible, that resonates with anyone possessing a pulse.
The new film One Life currently on release, is the remarkable tale of this man set a little more than nine months before WW2. I hope that it is a reminder to you that however small your own actions and power may seem, they can be life-saving.
Winton visited Prague in December 1938 at the suggestion of a friend and met with Warriner, Chadwick and Wellington who exposed him to their urgent work attempting to help key individuals flee Europe out of the thousands gathering in makeshift camps all hoping for help. He was fortunate to have never met the Gestapo (I so want to mock by writing gazpacho) and his life was never particularly endangered, but he was deeply moved by the plight of refugees who were fleeing Hitler’s Nazis following the night of mayhem ‘Kristallnacht’ on 9th November 1938 which followed the Munich Agreement in September which ceded Sudetenland and the subsequent full invasion in March 1939.
A time before email, social media and mobile phones, live images from anywhere on earth beamed into the palm of your hand. A trusty typewriter, filing cabinet and antiquated telephone system along with waiting (and pushing) to see those possessing the ability to grant permission. The challenge of bureaucratic lunacy and soulless governance has a modern familiarity, but in 1938, refugees under 18 were not permitted into Britain.
Winton and his mother pushed the wheels of the Civil Service into agreeing a process for granting permission to hundreds and potentially thousands of refugees fleeing extermination in Europe. They raised funds (£50 fee for each refugee), completed the paperwork and placed children with willing people having taken out adverts in newspapers. Some 669 children were spared annihilation in Europe, eventually finding refuge here in Britain after a perilous journey through hostile nations before war broke out, ending any viability of a visa.
Winton’s part in the story may never have been acknowledged had his wife not found his scrapbook from the period, detailing names of children and their foster families. It is highly unlikely that any of the children would have escaped had he and his mother not taken the action that they did.
Today we see horrors around the world with alarming frequency. In my December round up, I stated that “the world is currently safer than it ever has been for many of us”. By way of some context… our world was changed by the attacks in the US on 11th September 2001 which resulted in 2,996 deaths largely on the day itself. Pearl Harbour, which was the catalyst for the US joining the war saw 2,403 deaths on 7th December 1941.
The second world war itself lasted six years and conservatively resulted in 70 million deaths. That’s equivalent to 22 deaths for every minute of the war, a staggering 31,934 every day.
We can draw many lessons or conclusions from Winton’s story; but for me it’s a reminder that action takes many forms, being sufficiently resourced and able to provide solutions to great challenges is key for most of us. Our ability to respond has untold impact. Of the millions that ultimately died, Winton and his collaborators saved 669, each one significant and priceless.
Below is the trailer for the rather wonderful new film released by Warner Brothers.