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Hearing the Holocaust in ‘The Zone of Interest’

‘The Zone of Interest’ thoroughly deserves its Oscar for Best Sound—it’s an aural horror film

A scene from 'The Zone of Interest'

By Uday Bhatia

LAST PUBLISHED 14.03.2024  |  10:44 AM IST

“Did you hear that?" Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) asks a subordinate in German. They’re riding horses beside a field with tall weeds. We assume he’s referring to the agitated shouts just off-screen. But then he says, “It’s a bittern. A heron. A Eurasian grey heron." They ride into the field in search of the bird, past the shouting Germans on horses herding along a line of prisoners obscured by the grasses.

When I revisited the scene, I noticed that there is indeed a bird call. It’s an example of what makes Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone Of Interest (2023) a uniquely devastating Holocaust film. Unlike so many other films about Nazi Germany, the atrocities are all off-screen. It’s set in Auschwitz but we don’t see the internees. But we hear them, and the sounds of the genocidal factory system at work. It’s a rarity in cinema—a purely aural horror film.

The first challenge thrown at the viewer is one of sound: a black, empty screen following the film’s title. For three minutes, Mica Levi’s watery score is the only thing to engage with. After a minute, there’s a sudden cut to the countryside and bright sunlight, as we see the Höss family at a picnic. In an interview to Rolling Stone, Glazer, director of Sexy Beast and Under The Skin, explained how he wanted this to be a kind of guide for the viewer. “It was a way of tuning your ears before you tune your eyes to what you’re about to view. There is the movie you see here—and there is the movie you hear."

The movie we hear is one of great violence and suffering. The movie we see is pristine, bucolic. The home of the Höss family—Rudolf, his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller) and their five children—is right next door to the concentration camp he’s responsible for running. But they could be separated by an ocean for all it affects them. Hedwig takes tea in the garden, the kids splash in the pool, seemingly immune to the constant din of shouts, screams, barks, and the terrifying low noise of factories and furnaces. 

The visual information is minimal—like the disturbingly beautiful shot of smoke above the treetops from a train bringing in more internees—so one must parse the soundtrack for clues. Mostly Glazer lets the sounds remain indistinct, but on occasion they are audible, and subtitled. One of the Höss boys, maybe three or four, is playing by himself in his room. He hears distant raised voices and, curious, walks to the window. “What’s he done?" someone asks. Fighting over a stolen apple, he’s told. “Drown him in the river," the voice says. The boy turns back to his room, says to no one in particular: “Don’t do that again."

Through small, chilling moments, the film shows us how desensitised this family is to the horrors next door. Nearly all of these are built around the work of supervising sound editor Johnnie Burn and his team. In one of the most deserved awards at this year’s Oscars, Burn and Tarn Willers won for Best Sound. There’s a technical complexity and subtlety to the mix that might have impressed voters—scenes like the garden party, with its subtle layering of sounds. But I’d like to think the award was also given to this film because of how it forces the viewer to reckon with the implications of sounds. There's nothing as chilling as when the older brother locks his sibling in the greenhouse, then leers at him and hisses—the sound of the gas chambers.

The film’s boldest formal challenge, arriving towards the end, is at first visual. Without warning, the film jumps from 1943 to the present day, with the camp now a memorial to Holocaust victims. As two workers clean the premises before the day’s visitors arrive, sound again becomes important. The scrape of the brooms and the whine of the vacuum cleaner feel almost unseemly in their matter-of-factness. 

It’s a complex note to end on, to ask if time and familiarity have dimmed the horror of Auschwitz. Do we see—and hear—the signs? Or do we look past, like the Hösses? At the Oscars, hardly anyone gave an indication of hearing or seeing the protests en route to the venue against the war on Gaza. So it was heartening when Glazer, accepting the award for Best International Feature, said: “All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present—not to say ‘look what they did then’; rather, look what we do now… 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 people, whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel, or the ongoing attack on Gaza."

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