In ‘Oppenheimer’ and ‘The Zone of Interest,’ We Hear What We Are

by The Technical Blogs


In interviews, Glazer has spoken of “The Zone of Interest” as being made up of two films. One is what we see in the foreground: the family members going about their day, doing chores, celebrating birthdays, playing in the yard. The other is what you hear, and it sounds like the pit of hell.

The background is a conglomeration of sound, tuned down low enough that it almost seems like manipulated room tone, or like the whirrings of a very orderly and well-run factory. There are dogs barking; there’s some yelling. At times there’s the sound of buzzing electrical wire, of planes overhead, and of what you slowly realize is fire. The muffled sounds of classical music are omnipresent — among other things, music was played over loudspeakers at Auschwitz. And then there are the gunshots, the screams, the pleading.

Mass death is happening with great efficiency just over the garden wall. Its noise disappears only when the family goes deeper into the house or leaves altogether. Movies tell audiences what to pay attention to, but “The Zone of Interest” muddles that on purpose. We’re used to watching action, but the real story is in our ears, and our brains can’t decide whether to tune it out, the way these characters apparently have, or listen intently to see what we’re not seeing.

This is, to put it mildly, appalling. It is offensive, very deliberately. What goes undepicted in “Zone” is, like “Oppenheimer,” the point — the absence is a vacuum that begs us to fill it with the horrors of our imagination. Rudolf is obsessed with and rewarded for finding ever more organized and productive ways to exterminate prisoners, but he lives at both a literal and an intellectual remove from the death, filtering it through the bureaucratic language and diagrams that were the hallmark of the Third Reich. It is nauseating.

To the Höss family, the sound is background noise, and they no longer hear it, the way you stop hearing planes if you grow up near an airport. But a key scene later on suggests that’s not quite the whole story. It’s winter, and the Höss boys are playing in the yard alone. The older brother tricks his younger brother into entering the greenhouse, then locks him in and sits down, smiling, as the boy yells to be let out. The older one starts hissing. He’s playacting the part of a guard, having locked his brother in a gas chamber, and he knows exactly the sound it makes. His parents may have numbed their own ability to feel their humanity, but he has absorbed the massacre in a soul-stunting way.


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