‘Unimpeachable, irrefutable’: US playwright Tony Kushner praises Jonathan Glazer’s Oscars speech | Film

The playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner has come to the defence of director Jonathan Glazer, whose speech at the Oscars nearly a fortnight ago continues to polarise opinion.

Picking up his award for best foreign language film on 10 March, Glazer related his film, The Zone of Interest, to current events in the Middle East.

He said he hoped his movie, which shows the domestic lives of Rudolph and Hedwig Höss just outside the walls of Auschwitz, where he was camp commandant, “shows where dehumanisation leads, at its worst. It shaped all of our past and present.”

Standing on stage with producer James Wilson and financier Len Blavatnik, Glazer continued:

Right now we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation, which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanisation – how do we resist?”

Kushner, who won a Pulitzer prize for his play Angels in America, and has collaborated with Steven Spielberg on four films including 2022’s The Fabelmans, was a guest on Monday’s edition of the podcast of Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Asked if he identified with the speech, Kushner said: “Of course. I mean, who doesn’t? What he’s saying is so simple. He’s saying: Jewishness, Jewish identity, Jewish history, the history of the Holocaust, the history of Jewish suffering must not be used in a campaign of – as an excuse for a project of dehumanising or slaughtering other people.”

Kushner continued: “This is a misappropriation of what it means to be a Jew, what the Holocaust meant, and [Glazer] rejects that. Who doesn’t agree with that? What kind of person thinks that what’s going on now in Gaza is acceptable?”

Kushner, who is Jewish, told the Guardian he was proud that The Fabelmans – which is based on Spielberg’s early life – sought to call out antisemitism in the US. “It’s always a great thing to say antisemitism is abhorrent,” he said, “[It] has a history of ignominy second to none, and if you play footsie with it, if you tolerate its existence, you’re going to be led into some terrible place, because fascism and authoritarianism are unbelievably dull movements every time they reorganise and recrudesce, and they will follow the same tropes over and over again.

“They don’t have a huge imaginative armamentarium, and antisemitism is always right there and it’s been there for centuries, so if anybody starts to sound like an antisemite, they’re done, repudiate them, it’s over, do not make common cause with them.”

Kushner has frequently spoken out about the conflict in the Middle East; in 2011, the City University of New York U-turned on its decision to block an honorary degree given to the playwright on the grounds that he was insufficiently pro-Israel.

The fallout from Glazer’s speech, which was enthusiastically applauded in the Dolby theatre, began early the following week, when it was condemned by the US Holocaust Survivors Foundation and Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who said his remarks “excuse terrorism”.

Yet vocal supporters of Glazer, including directors such as Boots Riley, Zoe Kazan and Asif Kapadia, were quick to come to his defence, with Kapadia telling Variety: “He stood up and told the truth. This is what true artists do.”

Meanwhile an editorial in Haaretz argued that Glazer was correct, while the director of the Auschwitz Memorial also defended him, saying that “Glazer issued a universal moral warning against dehumanisation.”

Dr Piotr MA Cywiński continued: “His aim was not to descend to the level of political discourse. Critics who expected a clear political stance or a film solely about genocide did not grasp the depth of his message.”

Later in the week, The Zone of Interest’s executive producer, Danny Cohen, broke rank and told the Unholy podcast he “fundamentally disagree[d]” with Glazer’s words. On Friday, Laszlo Nemes, who also won the foreign language Oscar for a film set in Auschwitz towards the end of the war, 2015’s Son of Saul, told the Guardian Glazer “should have stayed silent instead of revealing he has no understanding of history and the forces undoing civilisation, before or after the Holocaust”.

Nemes continued: “Had he embraced the responsibility that comes with a film like that, he would not have resorted to talking points disseminated by propaganda meant to eradicate, at the end, all Jewish presence from the Earth.”

On Monday, Spielberg’s sister, Laura Spielberg, was one of some 450 Jewish creatives who signed an open letter condemning Glazer’s speech and criticising what they perceived as his “drawing a moral equivalence between a Nazi regime that sought to exterminate a race of people, and an Israeli nation that seeks to avert its own extermination”.

By Tuesday, some 700 additional names had signed the letter, which also took issue with Glazer’s “use of words like ‘occupation’ to describe an indigenous Jewish people defending a homeland that dates back thousands of years, and has been recognised as a state by the United Nations, [which] distorts history”.

The Guardian has contacted Glazer and Spielberg for comment.

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