Two Movies for Lent

Image by Lloyd Dirks


By: Paul Dyck

This past week I had opportunity to watch two astonishing movies in the theatre, and it struck me after the second that they had led me into a thoughtfulness appropriate to the season of Lent, that time of contrition in preparation for Easter. The movies aim with surprising success at very different images—humanity at its worst and humanity at its best—and that pairing itself seems fitting for the season, but the similarity of the two movies in form and in pacing—the way they slow down and make room for us to look and see—is perhaps what Lent is about.

The movies are Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest and Wim Wender’s Perfect Days. The former is about the family life of the commandant of Auschwitz, a man dedicated to the industrial-scale annihilation of Jews and other undesirables and also a loving, caring, attentive, and present father. The latter is about a public washroom cleaner in Tokyo, a man who lives alone, loves music and literature, and scrubs toilets day after day.

Both movies locate us in the everyday. Each has a narrative arc, but not a dramatic one; there are no chases, no great dilemmas or resolutions. They offer no artificial satisfaction. Rather, each invites us to attend to the mundane, to people living at the pace of actual life. Each is in its own way a deeply discomfiting experience, one challenging the assumptions that make our daily lives possible: that our kindness to our loved ones is a legible and reliable mark of our moral correctness, our righteousness; that we enjoy our freedom from demeaning bodily work in a non-hierarchical modernity. But as the first movie unavoidably reveals, we can love our children while being monstrous to other people, and as the second movie unavoidably reveals, we rely on untouchables who have in the name of equality become unthinkables, invisibles: those who clean up after us.

But this is already to moralize. What both movies do that is so astonishing is to make the moral situation entirely clear and not to moralize. Any moral message will necessarily reduce either film to something less than it is, for each film will make a claim upon you that exceeds any moralization you attempt.

Neither film manipulates the viewer. Rather, both films simply ask that we watch. Neither film uses artificial lighting and both have a documentary tone, one allowing us to take in the lives of the people on the screen.

To address Lenten concerns directly, one might say that the difference between the two movies is that Perfect Days hinges on renunciation: the personal letting go of social status and economic power, in exchange for a freedom to admit beauty. This renunciation is steadfast and never easy. And The Zone of Interest, one might say hinges on a supreme capacity to not renounce status and power, even if it means administering and living next to a horror.




Paul Dyck is Professor of English at Canadian Mennonite University and a lay reader and lay preacher at the Parish of St. Margaret, Winnipeg.

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