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'The Zone of Interest' focuses not on the sights, but on the sounds of the Holocaust

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

One of the 10 nominees for the Best Picture Oscar is the Holocaust drama "The Zone Of Interest." It's about the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, which was also the setting for Steven Spielberg's classic "Schindler's List" and the recent Hungarian film "Son Of Saul." But British director Jonathan Glazer set out to make a Holocaust film in which genocide is never shown. It is only heard in the distance in a film that demands that the audience listen. NPR's Bilal Qureshi spoke with its creators. And a note, this piece does discuss some details of the concentration camp.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: The first scene in "The Zone Of Interest" shows a picture perfect German family picnicking by the lake. But this is not just any picnic. The year is 1943, and as they drive home to their villa, it's revealed that the family shares a wall with the extermination camp at Auschwitz. The patriarch is the camp's commanding officer.

JONATHAN GLAZER: My name is Jon Glazer. And I'm the writer and director of "The Zone Of Interest."

QURESHI: Jonathan Glazer is British and the film is in German. It's inspired by Martin Amis' 2014 novel of the same name.

GLAZER: Very early on in the process of writing, I knew that I didn't want to reenact any of the atrocity, you know, any brutality, and that I could interpret it all with sound, because I've committed to tell a story from the perpetrator's side of the wall.

QURESHI: So even as we see family picnics, meals and parties, the mass murder on the other side of the wall is always heard, a constant industrial hum occasionally punctuated with gunfire and screams.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

SARAH SHACHAT: The way I've been describing it to friends of mine who are interested in seeing some Oscar movies is that it's as much of a bummer as you think it's going to be, but it's doing things formally that made me pay attention to the story in a different way. And I really appreciate that.

QURESHI: Sarah Shachat wrote a piece for IndieWire called "How 'The Zone Of Interest' Uses Our Ears Like No Other Film."

SHACHAT: It's basically like its own radio play of what we know is happening behind these characters. "The Zone Of Interest" keeps the horror of the Holocaust incredibly present by having you be the person who, you know, in your own mind, you create your worst version of what's happening in the camp based on the sound design while these characters are ignoring that. And it creates a very singular experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ZONE OF INTEREST")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking German).

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNNIE BURN: Hi, I'm Johnnie Burn. I'm the sound designer on "The Zone Of Interest." The process of making the film was we saw it as two films. One is the family drama, and the second film is a film you only hear, and that's a horrorscape (ph). And it's the sound that comes from over the wall into the family house.

QURESHI: Over the course of a year, sound designer Johnnie Burn and his team traveled across Europe gathering field recordings and ambient sounds for what they referred to as Film 2, while Jonathan Glazer and his actors shot the bucolic family film in Poland, Film 1.

GLAZER: It was almost like, the pictures, trying to make them as flat as possible, knowing that the sound I was going to be getting to further down the line was going to be a absolute kind of typhoon of horror, really.

BURN: In order to accurately represent the sound of Auschwitz, I realized pretty early on that I had to research an awful lot and understand what happened. And we had access to the Auschwitz Memorial Museum archives, which has a lot of unpublished material, things that were specifically mentioned as having a sound, like, you know, the awful sound of the electric fence. And I collated all of those into a many-hundred-page document that became my Bible for what to go and find and record.

QURESHI: Many of the film's most unsettling scenes come at night, as the flames from the crematorium cast light on the family villa.

BURN: So, yeah, in this scene, we begin with Rudolf Hoss standing in his garden smoking a cigar. And you're aware of a faint buzz of the electric fence, and you hear guards' voices along the wall to the side of him. And they are ushering prisoners up to the gas chamber at the end of the garden. And Rudolf walks across the garden and he notices the shower tap is dripping in the pool, and he turns that off. And that reveals that you - what you thought was running water is actually more the hum of the incinerator, and what you thought was the rattling of the showerhead is actually trapped prisoners banging on the door of the crematoria. And basically, what you have is a man smoking a cigar in his garden whilst he's murdering, you know, a thousand people 50 yards away.

I mean, it was an awful scene to work on, frankly. In fact, the whole film was pretty awful to work on. But, yeah, you know, we had to reproduce that as accurately and, obviously, without sensation as possible because it's important to say, you know, this happened and this is how it happened.

QURESHI: But some critics have not appreciated Jonathan Glazer's aesthetic and sonic treatment of the Holocaust. IndieWire's Sarah Shachat says she understands the criticism.

SHACHAT: That's fair to say. It's also fair to say that, like, doing it the traditional way is diminishing returns as well. So how do we keep telling these stories in a way that is impactful for new audiences, you know, 70 or 80 years after the events?

QURESHI: Earlier this week, "The Zone Of Interest" won three BAFTAs, the British equivalent of the Oscars. And while accepting onstage, producer James Wilson said the film was always meant to be more than a period film.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES WILSON: A friend wrote me after seeing the film the other day that he couldn't stop thinking about the walls we construct in our lives which we choose not to look behind. Those walls aren't new from before or during or since the Holocaust. And it seems stark right now that we should care about innocent people being killed in Gaza or Yemen in the same way we think about innocent people being killed in Mariupol or in Israel.

(APPLAUSE)

GLAZER: I can see how people could propagandize the film on any side of the argument, or on any side of the wall.

QURESHI: But director Jonathan Glazer says he hopes the film can resist that kind of flattening.

GLAZER: Ultimately because it talks about something more fundamental to what it is to be human beyond tribe and race and so on. It's about this capacity we have in us for violence. And it would be quite something to be able to evolve as a species out of that impulse in mind, indeed, you know?

QURESHI: Glazer says "The Zone Of Interest" is designed to echo our capacity to tune out that which we don't wish to hear, but also our capacity and responsibility to tune in where we must.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAMBLES' "TO SPEAK OF SOLITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.