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The use of sound in the Zone of Interest

Last weekend, an Oscar-winning film for best sound, “The Zone of Interest,” was shown at the Weitz during the Student Union Movie Organization’s (SUMO) weekly film nights. Loosely based on the book “The Zone of Interest” by Martin Amis, this film focuses on the life of the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his family, who live in a scenic home next to the camp. The film was written and directed by Jonathan Glazer and produced by A24. “The Zone of Interest” stars Christian Friedel as Rudolf Hössand Sandra Hüller as his wife, Hedwig Höss(Hüller was also nominated for her performance in “Anatomy of A Fall” at this year’s Oscars). . Plotwise, “The Zone of Interest” focuses mainly on the Höss family, showing their peaceful and social home and life, in direct contact with Auschwitz. The family’s house is so close to Auschwitz that the wall between the concentration camp and the Höss family garden has barbed wires on top of it, displaying the literal side-by-side existence of the two vastly different environments. The film does not rely on plot, and is largely driven by the sounds and sights around what is going on in the Höss family. The intent behind director Glazer’s choice to focus on the Höss family, specifically Commandant Höss, was to “demystify the perpetrators of the Holocaust as ‘mythically evil’” and make people see the true malignity  behind these real people. In this interview, Glazer discussed how he also wanted the film to just present the facts as  they were .  

Sound is an enormous component of this film. “The Zone of Interest” begins with a black screen, featuring only the title of the film and sounds that are a mix of composer Mica Levi’s up and down pitches which set an incredibly unnerving tone and sound designer Johnnie Burn’s soundscapes. This opening scene sets the exact mood of the rest of the film and hints to the viewer that in order to understand, they must use their ears.

Throughout the rest of the film, the house that the Höss family lives in is never quiet; sound designer Burn constantly has the sounds of guard dogs barking, shouting and train whistles as they pull into the station nearby. As the story progresses, the sounds of film become much darker . Towards the beginning of the film, Rudolf Höss has a meeting with the contractors  in charge of the crematoriums for the prisoners in Auschwitz. Their entire conversation is incredibly disturbing, as they casually discuss how many people they can fit into the crematorium in order to “optimize” the outcomes. After this scene, nights at the Höss family’s home become all the more disturbing to the viewer. With sounds of guard dogs and shouting now combined with the terrible sounds of the gas chambers and implications of death, the horrors of Auschwitz are displayed to the viewer by sound rather than sight. Throughout the entirety of the film, there are barely any physical depictions of what is happening in Auschwitz other than what we hear and the plans that Höss makes with other commanders. However, these sounds appear to have little to no effect upon the Hösses during the beginning and middle of the film. Hedwig Höss in particular appears to be incredibly disassociated from what is going on around her. Her dissociation of what is going on quite literally outside her doorstep is shown through her perception of her house. When her mother comes to visit the family, Hedwig is incredibly eager to show her mother the backyard. She brags about how nice their pool is, all of the flowers she has planted and how her garden is a perfect place to sit and relax, describing her living situation as “everything we could have ever dreamed of.” This displays her complete disregard and lack of care for the fact that people are being tortured and killed right behind the wall, the very place they are relaxing. The juxtaposition of the roses that line the Höss’s side of the wall with the barbed wire that lines the concentration camp make it abundantly clear to the viewer that the Hösses’ happiness and riches would not exist without AuschwitzThe Hoss family’s disregard for what is occurring on the other side of their wall is incredibly jarring and leaves no room for them to separate themselves from the crimes against humanity. However, not everyone in the Höss family is able to disassociate from what is occurring right over the wall. Hedwig’s mother flees in the middle of the night from the home after hearing the crematorium during the night. They are so close to the crematorium that the screams of those inside are audible and the light from the fire lights up the entire house. 

By using sound as the medium through which people understand what is going on within Auschwitz, the viewer can no longer perceive people like Rudolf Höss as “mythically evil,” like Glazer referenced. Rudolf Höss knows exactly what he is doing and the harm he is causing with his work because not only are the people that are working for him reporting the results, but because he can view them from outside his window. 

“The Zone of Interest” forces the viewers to reflect on their own perception of the horrific events of the Holocaust. It displays to us the fact that the perpetrators of it were human and, in the case of the Höss family, resulted in the destruction of millions of people in order to gain status in their own society. In Hedwig’s case, she was compliant with what was going on in Auschwitz because it made her home life more secure and luxurious. She didn’t care or appear to be bothered by the sounds that were heard at all hours, sounds caused by her husband. 

In his interview with the British Film Institute, Glazer says that “The Zone of Interest” is not a film about the past, instead “it is about now.” He displays this through the ending of the film, which is a montage of people cleaning the modern day Auschwitz Museum and memorial site as they prepare to open. This is the first distinct visual representation of what was occurring in the concentration camp that we are given in the entire film. By showing the modern impacts of the crimes that we saw Rudolf Höss planning, it is an incredibly haunting and impactful way of displaying what became of Auschwitz. The final scene before the credits, cuts back to the place we left Rudolf Höss, on the stairs throwing up after a celebration he went to celebrating the success of the new train from Hungary which will transport 700,000 Jewish prisoners to their death in Auschwitz. Höss’s facial expressions are purposely incredibly hard to read, making the reason for him throwing up less clear and it is left unanswered as he descends down the stairs into darkness, concluding the film. “The Zone of Interest” concludes with the sounds of his footsteps, as we are now able to contextualize the events that are to follow when he gets to the bottom of the staircase.

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