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Cruelty and Apathy Collide in ‘The Zone of Interest’

Cruelty and Apathy Collide in ‘The Zone of Interest’
Cruelty and Apathy Collide in ‘The Zone of Interest’


Jonathan Glazer’s new film, The Zone of Interest, begins with a black screen that lingers for at least a full minute. There’s music in the form of a groaning score, as well as a smattering of noises—faint whispers, rustling leaves—that can be heard through the discordant notes. Otherwise, though, nothing appears.

That nothingness continued for so long at my screening that I began to question whether a technical difficulty—a defective projector, maybe?—had occurred. It had not; Glazer, who’s known for making unsettling, experimental movies such as Birth and Under the Skin, intended to teach the audience how to absorb his new film, his first in 10 years. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Ears first,’” he told me earlier this month. “What you’re going to hear in this film is as important as what you’re going to see. Arguably more so.”

The Zone of Interest is two films in one: the film you see and the film you hear. The movie you see observes the mundane day-to-day lives of a well-off German family. Over and over, the father, Rudolf (played by Christian Friedel), goes to and from work; the mother, Hedwig (Anatomy of a Fall’s Sandra Hüller), tends to her garden; and their children, a rambunctious bunch, play with their toys. In the movie you hear, however, there’s intermittent gunfire, bursts of screams, and an ever-present industrial cacophony. Along with snatches of dialogue and glimpses of details—the costuming, the barbed wire, the smoke—the film makes clear what’s going on: Rudolf is Rudolf Höss, the real-life longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz, and this is a portrait of how he and his Nazi family actually lived, going about their days adjacent to the death camp he ran.

The result is an eerie and restrained study of the Holocaust that never shows a single frame of the atrocity: the forced labor; the starvation; the systematic murder of more than 1.1 million prisoners, the overwhelming majority of whom were Jewish. That choice—to suggest violence rather than reenact it—is rare, especially in a year of critically acclaimed films told from the perspective of people who perpetrated historical tragedies. Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese’s impeccable dissection of the Osage murders, depicted the relentless assault against the tribe through montages of the many murders that occurred. Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s sweeping biopic of the father of the atomic bomb, portrayed the invention’s subsequent destruction through its subject’s haunting hallucinations of charred corpses. Both films have sparked debate over whether such re-creations of trauma are necessary, but Zone sidesteps the issue without sacrificing any of the story’s disquieting impact.

The prosaic, almost anthropological camerawork implicates the Hösses as people who have become so accustomed to violence that they can live like nothing’s happening next door. The sound design, meanwhile, is incessant enough to become a rumbling backdrop, even white noise. Through these layered techniques, the film exposes a disturbing truth: As insidious as the Hösses’ acceptance of what’s going on beyond their garden wall may be, they’re not so extraordinary in their ignorance. All of us are capable of tuning out reality.

The sound designer Johnnie Burn recalls feeling panicked when Glazer informed him how essential his work would be to Zone. He was no stranger to a challenging assignment from Glazer, having worked with the director on Under the Skin. For that film, he deployed unusual tactics to capture more realistic sounds and learned that “immersive cinema isn’t necessarily about sounds flowing around your head or loudness, [but] about credibility,” he told me. Still, Zone raised thornier technical and moral questions when it came to delivering authenticity. “You’re dealing with perpetual atrocity,” Glazer explained. “What does that actually sound like? … How does it shift and ebb and flow, and should we get all of it? Should we begin to disassociate from it as we watch the film … or should we always be mindful of it?”

Ordinarily, Burn would have recruited foley artists to help reproduce realistic sounds, but he approached Zone with a documentarian’s perspective. He pored over survivors’ testimonies made available by the Auschwitz museum, which granted the film permission to shoot on location, at a vacant house similar to the Hösses’ villa. He put together a 600-page document of what the family probably heard—the wildlife, the vehicles, the artillery, the languages prisoners spoke—and constructed a “sound map” in which he could pinpoint the likely volumes depending on their distance from the Hösses’ home. And he spent a year and a half traveling around Europe to track down and replicate the noises he’d compiled. On an island off the south coast of England, he and his team found a firing range that had a brick building resembling Auschwitz’s walls. In Estonia, Burn located a man who collected vintage motorbikes and owned the same ones that had been ridden around the camp.

Simulating the human turmoil was another matter. Burn, during his travels, recorded people in riotous situations—“a local football match on a Sunday afternoon between young men in Germany, 3 a.m. in the streets of Glasgow,” he explained—weaving them into the sounds heard beyond the wall. Glazer, meanwhile, planted hidden cameras around the house, letting the actors feel as engaged as possible in the environment.

Such meticulousness may seem extreme, but these techniques were pivotal to conveying the cognitive dissonance Glazer and Burn wanted viewers to experience. With enough sonic detail to work with, audiences would be able to paint a mental image of the horror inside the camp—and perhaps interrogate their own reactions to it as the film went on. Hearing exactly what the Höss family heard, would they also become used to the soundscape? Would they notice that whenever the family leaves their villa, the cacophony fades away? And would they ever anticipate seeing what they already know is happening, because previous films about the Holocaust have provided such images?  “There is an appetite for horror, and there is an appetite for violence, and there is an appetite for it on-screen, because we are at a safe distance from it,” Glazer said. “It’s hard to say whether or not the impulse of people who watch the film is that they want to see over the wall or whether they fear seeing over the wall.”

Still, Glazer admitted that he frequently fine-tuned his choices while making Zone. The first draft of the script relied more on the score by the composer Mica Levi. An early outline of Burn’s soundscape didn’t include the constant hum of machinery. And every now and then, Glazer wanted to write sequences that showed what was going on in the camp during Rudolf’s workdays—an instinct the director had to continually deny. “I always knew that I didn’t want to re-create violence … but there were definitely scenes which took us over the other side of the wall in different ways,” he said. “Every draft, I just kept flushing them out until they were all gone.” But while he was filming, he wondered to himself, “Well, how can I not show that?

The answer to that question—to show only through sound and suggestion—transforms Zone from a film about the Holocaust into a film about how we respond to overwhelming tragedy. The threadbare plot tracks how Rudolf and Hedwig cling to the notion of their home as a paradise; the actors’ naturalistic performances contribute to the film’s clinical quality, but it’s their characters’ desensitized perspective that lends the story chilling weight. Consider the seemingly ceaseless amount of images available today for every catastrophe and conflict. Should you look at them or look away? Zone doesn’t offer an answer but instead questions what happens when evidence of inhumanity becomes simply another part of everyday life. What was once shocking becomes merely numbing. What was once unspeakable becomes banal. And before long, what was clearly evil becomes nothing at all—just a void that lingers on and on.


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