The Zone of Interest is heard before it's seen.
Jonathan Glazer's Holocaust drama opens in darkness: Multiple full minutes of a dark screen, over which composer Mica Levi's unnerving overture pitches down and down and down until it bleeds into the first of sound designer Johnnie Burn's soundscapes. Only then does Glazer cut to an image. "The opening says, 'Use your ears,'" Burn says.
Adapted from the novel by Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest is a portrait of the daily routine of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), at their home over the wall of the camp. Glazer's approach to the project was to think of it as two films: The film you see, and the one you hear. The juxtaposition of the two — of watching the Hösses go about the lives, at willful odds with the horrors happening next door — is meant to reveal the banality of evil.
As such, the cinematography, by two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Łukasz Żal (Ida and Cold War), was intended to be as stripped-back as possible. Or as Żal explains it, "Everything comes from this concept that we wanted to be as objective as possible, to witness it without fetishizing or glamorizing the topic."
"You have to forget completely all the tricks you're carrying with you as a cinematographer and all your knowledge and everything you were taught in your career," Żal tells A.frame. "The whole idea of this film was just to put the cameras in the places where you can see what is happening in the most objective way, and that's it. Very simple."
That simplistic approach meant no lights on set, no flags, nothing. Żal would not even be at the camera for much of the shoot. "Jon didn't want this set to look like a film set," he says. Instead, Glazer conceived of a surveillance-like shooting style likened to "Big Brother in the Nazi house": Production designer Chris Oddy built a recreation of the Höss home at Auschwitz and Żal rigged it with 10 hidden cameras that would roll simultaneously.
"There was nobody on set [except] the actors," Żal says, who monitored the shoot from outside the home while the focus pullers and camera assistants operated from the basement. "So, the actors were just living their lives, and because we had 10 setups at the same time and were shooting everything, after one or two hours, we had all the setups we needed. We had continuous action, and the sun was changing, the light was changing, the clouds were coming and going, the dog was running through the house, and everything was captured on the 10 cameras."
Żal made a number of technical decisions within those parameters: He only used German-made lenses, like the Leitz M 0.8; and it was important to both the cinematographer and director that when it came to choosing the cameras themselves, they'd use "only 21st century tools" in order to avoid the film having any sort of "historical patine."
"If you turn off the sound, it's probably a different film. It will be just a family drama. The context is everything," Żal says. "The context of what is behind the wall and the context of the sonic world — what we hear there — makes this film, because then we are able to look at this like a mirror. We can see ourselves."
While Żal was shooting one film — the film that is seen — Burn began his work on the second film. The sound designer, who had previously worked with Glazer on Birth and Under the Skin, recalls the original directive from the filmmaker. "He said, 'It is going to be mandatory that we don't go in the camp, and we don't see the atrocities. We're going to just hear them. It will all be sound.' I panicked. I started reeling, because I realized that would be a leap of faith. And also, where are we going to get the sounds from? Jon said, 'Well, that's what you're going to figure out.'"
Burn compiled a 600-page research document before capturing one single sound. ("It would make an interesting A24 coffee table book if it wasn't for the actual subject matter.") He spent the year before filming began and throughout the shoot and into post-production building the sound library with his team. He recorded the industrial rumble of textile workshops and incinerators, boots marching on gravel, period-accurate gunfire, and death itself.
"It's the sound of murder, and it has to be credible but we didn't want to be sensational," says Burn. "Anything hammy or sensationalized in the sound wouldn't work, so understanding the difference between someone acting pain and actually being in pain at point of death, that's to do with literally the cadence of the way people scream. And then going back and rerecording with that knowledge. Jon's always taught me to go to every single degree you can to recreate everything as accurately as possible."
Though Glazer does not depict any of the violence of the Holocaust on-screen, the pervasive ambient sound comes to dominate The Zone of Interest. It is background noise to the mundanity of the Höss family's life, but the filmmaker knows that we, the audience, already have the imagery of what happened in the camps in our heads, and that makes it all the more upsettingly potent. It was for the sound designer.
"I know that I'm lucky because I was not there, but I also know that about three or four weeks into research, I remember saying to my wife, 'Gosh. This is really affecting me.' And obviously, why wouldn't it? And it went on for years," Burn says. The Zone of Interest premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the Grand Prix. "I woke up the next morning, and I had viral meningitis. I was in hospital for about five days. So, I don't know. It took a toll."
By John Boone