Sound and Image in THE ZONE

January 22, 2024 - 2:52pm
Posted by Jim Healy


The following notes on The Zone of Interest were written by Nick Sansone, PhD Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW-Madison. The Zone of Interest has its first Madison-area screening at the UW Cinematheque on Thursday, January 25 at 7 p.m. The screening takes place at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Admission is free.

By Nick Sansone.

There’s an immediately striking image early in writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest that speaks to the film’s intended tone and message in a stark and chilling fashion that defines the film’s formal approach. A man we will soon come to know as Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), German SS officer and commandant of Auschwitz death camp, is beside his beaming wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) while their children play in the backyard of their house. The sun shines down on them through a clear blue sky that dominates the top of the frame. But this image of domestic bliss is intruded upon by a massive wall topped with barbed wire and a watchtower poking over the other side of it. The sounds of children at play are most prominent in the sound mix, but underneath we can hear an aural tableau of screams, gunfire, trains, and furnaces coming from the other side of that imposing wall, the sounds of human destruction as efficient machinery. This contrast, between what we are directly shown and what lies just out of frame, is the animating tension of The Zone of Interest, a film that foregrounds small-scale domestic drama amidst one of the greatest atrocities in human history.

Loosely adapted from Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same name, The Zone of Interest is only the fourth feature film in 23 years for Glazer—a former music video director—and his first since 2013. While Glazer’s previous two films, 2004’s underrated Birth (2004) and 2013’s Under the Skin, both demonstrate an almost Kubrickian stylistic discipline and gift for mounting dread, there was little in his career that pointed toward historical drama as his next outlet. However, Glazer’s formal approach should be immediately recognizable here, particularly for fans of Under the Skin. For example, in both films, Glazer begins by foregrounding the importance of score and sound design to the work, displaying a black screen as the soundtrack builds in volume and intensity before the first image is even shown. (As in his prior film, Glazer worked closely with composer Mica Levi and sound designer Johnnie Burn, to similarly chilling results). In doing this, Glazer conditions the spectator to be as attentive to sound as they are to image, to similarly scan their soundscape as they would the frame.

Johnnie Burn has discussed the film’s two distinct and clashing soundscapes that creates the chilling dichotomy that drives the film. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he discussed creating the first soundscape, that of the Höss family’s menial domestic existence. According to Burn, the sound department planted “20 hidden directional microphones” on set that would “capture the real sounds of the actors simultaneously performing in long takes across many rooms and spaces” and would limit the need for ADR, lending a sense of specificity and authenticity to what we hear. For the second soundscape, that of the horrors taking place in Auschwitz, Burn utilized a massive database of sound effects as well as a Poland-based foley team who would record the sounds of “20 prisoners being marched by a guard who is shouting,” along with period-appropriate guns and motorbike engines. All told, a single sequence in the film “ultimately used over 500 different incidences of sound.”

In addition to the careful, layered approach to the film’s sound design, Glazer also worked closely with cinematographer Łukasz Żal on crafting a historically accurate yet tonally alienating visual aesthetic for the film. Glazer and his crew were given the uncommon privilege of filming on location in Auschwitz, or rather right along its outside edge. The filmmakers also studied the real Höss estate in exhaustive detail to construct a historically accurate replica of how it would have looked in 1943. However, Glazer was adamant that he did not wish to glamorize the estate or the people who lived there, describing it as a desire for the images to seem “authorless”, devoid of style or artistic grandeur. Similar to his use of hidden cameras on Under the Skin, Glazer placed 10 cameras (and hidden microphones) at various places throughout the set, both immersing the actors on set and giving the film its enveloping and omniscient aesthetic, one that forced the viewer to bear witness to the banal quotidian lives of those committing unspeakable evil. The few moments when Glazer does break from his hyperrealist aesthetic, such as a series of stunning sequences shot in infrared, it is all the more shocking, as it pulls us violently out of the disquieting, yet almost placid rhythms of what has come before.

With The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer has taken a well-trodden prestige subgenre, the Holocaust drama, and radically revived it in his own formal milieu. Rather than directly confront or wallow in images of inhuman violence and degradation, Glazer conjures overpowering moral dread by mere suggestion and implication, constantly asking us to look and listen closer and forcing us to consider how any human being could live so blissfully alongside such depravity, let alone perpetrate it against their fellow man.