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"The Zone of Interest" and the cinema of sound & the cut by Sharad Raj

Updated: Mar 9

The Zone of Interest( 2023, Photo courtesy A24)

I hadn’t heard of Jonathan Glazer until a fortnight ago, when a colleague asked me if I had seen any of his works? He was apparently reading a book on cinema's philosophy and determinism that had mentioned the films of Glazer. As the couple of weeks passed and the weekend arrived, I noticed a film by Jonathan Glazer on a ticket booking website and got curious. It was his latest film, a winner of a few BAFTA Awards and the Grand Prix at Cannes (2023) with both its sound designer Johnnie Burn and music director Mica Levi also getting awards, both at BAFTA and Cannes.


The film is adapted from a novel by Martin Amiss of the same name and revolves around Rudolf Höss the Commandant of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, his wife Hedwig, their five children and their house staff who live on a lavish property right next to the concentration camp.


So here I was. On a working day afternoon, I went to watch the film. And what unfolded on the massive multiplex screen was something I had not expected. To begin with I was fidgety and restless after an excruciating day at work the previous evening. The film as it began made me even more restless and I wondered why? Was I unsettled because of its long shot compositions, for I certainly do not recognize the German actor Christian Friedel (Rudolf Höss) nor am I so familiar with Sandra Hüller (Hedwig Höss) despite watching her in Anatomy of a Fall, to be identify them in long and extreme long shots. Hence it was a bit muddling initially. But that cannot be the whole reason, I thought to myself. So what exactly it is I questioned myself?


 I soon realized it was Jonathan Glazer’s approach towards editing.


Sandra Hüller, Jonathan Glazer & Christian Friedel at Cannes, 2023. The film got a 6-minutes standing ovation. (Photo courtesy Cannes/Instagram)

The film is not dialogue heavy so to say but there is a fair amount of dialogue in the film and the takes are long both in composition and duration. As accustomed as we are to the "poetics of slow cinema", we assume that long takes, for all their poetry don’t really have sharp cutting points. Most of the time shots begin a bit before action and dialogue and stay for a bit longer once theaction or dialogue is over. But Glazer’s editor Paul Watts was doing just the opposite. He was cutting them just as the action got over and starting the following shot as well with either dialogue or action or both! The result was that scenes were more like set pieces of tableau of the yore, if we go back to the times of George Méliès and Edwin S. Porter, edited back-to-back and that was in my view the main reason for its disconcerting effect on me.


With this realization I decided to focus on the film. And it was then that the film started to grow on me. This clearly was an editing choice made deliberately by Glazer and his editor for purposes of keeping us alert or for its alienating function. I am not certain if other felt the same as I did but I did feel that way for sure and I am very certain that the edit scheme was something hitherto not experienced or even employed by another maker. At least I am now aware and it was a definite mise-en-scene choice.


Now well settled and beginning to identify Sandra and Friedel (Hedwig and Rudolf Höss), I slowly became aware of the film’s soundtrack. The horrors of the neighboring concentration camp start to gradually affect us as the sounds of the firing, the footsteps of the gestapo inside the camp, furnaces burning and the Jews screaming start to permeate through the high walls of the concentration camp into the lavish Höss household and thereby to us, the viewers.


Jonathan Glazer depends entirely on his soundtrack to create the violence inside the camp and is ably supported by his brilliant sound designer Johnnie Burn, who apparently took a year to prepare a 600 pages sound document and make a sound bank, before the production began and continued to do so even during the post-production.


Robert Bresson says cinema is 80 percent sound and we all know what a master of sound Bresson was. It seems Glazer has dealt with the soundtrack of his film to quite literally illustrate what Bresson says about sound in cinema. A very large part of the film is not on the video track but on the soundtrack. Cinematic image is never just the visual but a combination of the audio and the visual, and it is this juxtaposition of off-screen sound with the seemingly normal day to day upper middle-class life of a Nazi family that the film uses for us to experience the horror and violence of Auschwitz, without a single frame of on-screen violence.


Sandra Hüller in The Zone of Interest(2023, photo courtesy A24)

There are lakhs of inmates screaming and burning and being tortured inside the concentration camp with absolutely no affect on its next-door neighbors. While Hedwig goes around humiliating her house maids and Rudolf spends time designing new crematoriums and pondering on how to gas 700,000 Hungarian Jews, fascism and their surrender to the Fuhrer is normalized, casual and absolute. It is this daily routine and insignificant issues like promotion, job transfer and child education when juxtaposed with the Auschwitz soundtrack that the violence gets to you and starts to enter your veins.


No wonder Jonathan Glazer spent 10 years making this film and his cinematographer Łukasz  Żal hid 10 cameras in various places on the set without any crew or staff member and would leave them on in order to capture the actors improvising and presenting their nonchalance that I mention above.


The Zone of Interest is seething to say the least. Do catch this film when you can.

Sharad Raj is a Mumbai based independent filmmaker, Senior Faculty at Whistling Woods International & the Editor of Just Cinema.

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