Fugitive Music: The Zone of Interest and the Chorus of Souls

A group of people on a grassy hill by a lakeDescription automatically generated

Still from The Zone of Interest (Courtesy of A24).

Few if any moviegoers will stray into The Zone of Interest thinking it’s a biopic about Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and his tight-fisted monetary policy. They know beforehand that they’ve come to see a Holocaust movie. They’ve probably also heard or read that the film inhabits the sinister family idyll of the Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (portrayed as emotionless automaton by Christian Friedel). Killer of millions, Höss lives with his six children and his wife Hedwig (played by Sandra Hüller with savage steeliness) in a pleasant house surrounded by a lush garden whose back wall rises right against the perimeter of the death camp. Frau Höss has plans to grow a climbing rose up that wall in order to beautify it, the soil to be prepared with ash.

This Nazi matron has the big hands (surely as calloused as her scrubbed-out humanity) and the bad hips of someone who knows how to work, although servants now make her life easier: Jewish women from the camp sweep, cook, and cower inside her house and suffer her threats; outside, laborers in striped uniforms push barrows and dig. When Commandant Höss gets transferred back to Berlin to manage the Final Solution across all the camps, she refuses to leave the home she has built in accordance with Nazi ideology: “This is my Lebensraum,” she insists.

The garden wall prevents the Höss family from seeing into the camp, yet some barracks rooves and one of the watchtowers rise above the barrier, as do, farther in the distance of the enormous compound, smokestacks that belch out smoke and glow red night. Only the father, tender if detached with his children, enters the camp for his daily work, like a jack-booted bureaucrat punching the clock.

The garden wall bars vision, but it cannot stop sound. From inside the camp comes the relentless hum of the machinery of death—a low, nauseating growl that seems to be coming from deep within the earth and the conscience. Military commands and the pleas of prisoners are occasionally lofted above this never-yielding sonic truth. No noise-canceling headphones are available as they would be today. Death is in the air, not just as ash, but as fugitive sound. Mother, father, visiting mother-in-law, children: all hear what they cannot, will not see.

In The Zone of Interest, writer/director Jonathan Glazer (his script is based on the novel by Martin Amis) unblinkingly exercises his visual artistry: the painterly beauty of many of the images he captures is devastating, awful—like Old Master genre scenes of Nazi domestic life. Aesthetics becomes a form of violence.

With a force that only poise can effect, this film confronts hearing and willful blindness. It is about the moral collision of sight and sound. Along with his sound design team led by Johnnie Burn, Glazer makes his movie about what we hear—what the Höss family heard but tried to refuse to listen to.

Glazer begins the film by attuning our ears to the terror with a long musical overture by his composer, Mica Levi. Heard to a black screen, this symphony of synthesizers emits vaporous, threatening harmonies against which cables and gears scrape and complain. The music goes nowhere even while pushing inexorably ahead with its program. It’s ugly grinding sharpens our ears and perhaps hardens our hearts. The black screen and its music last for a minute or two. Duration becomes increasingly hard to judge in this world where paradise is adjacent to hell. Both are places beyond time.

At last, birdsong is heard above the numbing din. Is it a buoyant melody of hope flown in to offer respite to the already beleaguered ear? Perhaps Nature will provide music to refresh the spirit.

The darkness gives way to fabulous green. Nazi officer families picnic by a pristine lake surrounded by dense forest in what is the German East—formerly Poland. The young in summery white linens are brooded over by their mothers. Pale male bodies in black woolen bathing suits swim and splash in the pure water.

After the outing, Frau Höss helps her children wend their way safely through stinging nettles. Every image, interaction, sound—and the very few silences—are suffocated by allegory.

Höss loves Nature. He listens to it. He appears soothed by the rushing of the Sola River that runs through Auschwitz. He paddles in the stream with his children in a lovely wooden canoe given him for his birthday. With wonder in his voice, he identifies the call of a heron for his son, teaching him to love Nature too. Later on, Höss’s tenderest words are spoken to his beloved Auschwitz horse which he rides through the fields and forests and whom he has to leave when called back to Berlin. Briefcase in hand, he coos over an old woman’s dog on his way to a critical meeting of extermination camp commandants. Höss mimics natural sounds too, grunting like a pig from his twin bed to get his wife to laugh as she lies on her own bed a few feet away.

During the action of the film we hear almost no other music from Levi. There are but two more interludes joined to blank screens that act like theatre curtains between scenes. The most striking of these comes directly after close-ups of the vibrant flowers in Frau Höss’s garden. The last is a perfect bloom (hibiscus?) whose color seems to spread instantly out across a blank, muted-red screen intruded on by Levi’s unnatural music.

From within the world of the film, snatches of music are heard by the characters. A brass band marks Höss’s birthday; another plays under a pergola in freezing winter for maimed veterans; a string quartet (perhaps of Jewish musicians) glides through a Johann Strauss waltz for a Nazi gala. A handsomely veneered grand piano, that symbol of German bourgeois success and cultural accomplishment, ornaments the Höss home. But the instrument is seen and heard only once, when a Jewish girl steals a chance to play at it, reading from a sheet of crumpled manuscript paper that has mysteriously turned up on the music desk. Not only the sounds of death have escaped the camp.

The voice we hear singing is actually that of the Auschwitz survivor, Joseph Wulf, who wrote the song and recorded it in the late 1960s: “Sunbeams, radiant and warm / Human bodies, young and old; / And who are imprisoned here, / Our hearts are yet not cold,” he sings in Yiddish, the mournful minor melody ending as a question that hangs in the air. This song, a real historical artefact and a literal voice of memory, seems to come from within the sonic world of the film, yet one can’t be sure if it is heard there. The halting, almost hopeful music is unplaceable, both free and imprisoned.

It is right that newly composed music by Levi does not accompany the reenactments of the Höss family’s monstrous quotidian life. Ever since the Viennese emigré Max Steiner sonically pantomimed the great ape’s escapades in King Kong in 1933, film scores have generally been aimed at enhancing action and emotion, even while these musical cues assure us that what we are watching is not real, that we are not actually in danger of getting killed or falling in love or both. Film music reminds us that what we are watching is entertainment, however uplifting. Glazer and Levi do not use music to play on our emotions during the visual representations of historical events.

It only is after the action of film has concluded, as white letters on a black background listing the names the hundreds of filmmakers trudge by (inevitably evoking other lists of names not of the living but of the annihilated) that a chorus of souls at last begins to vocalize wordlessly. As some moviegoers shuffle towards the exit or check their cellphones, previously repressed emotion resounds from the cinema speakers.

It’s as if the gates closing in feeling had been flung open. The credits offer catharsis.

German aesthetic theorists of the nineteenth century praised textless music precisely because its meaning was indefinite. Lacking specific semantic content, symphonies could refer amorphously beyond themselves, even to an absolute, if undefined artistic truth. Abstraction pointed towards transcendence.

Glazer has eloquently spoken of, and grappled with, the ethics of representing the Holocaust. The Zone of Interest shows one must consider sight and sound.

But what of the ethics not just of representation, but of abstraction? Even if Levi’s final choral symphony to the credits of The Zone of Interest forsakes words, the music is overladen with meaning.

In the default key for dirges of D minor, a bass ostinato traipses inexorably ahead and then stumbles back down. This could evoke anything, but in The Zone of Interest the musical figure recalls the millions milling to their deaths; the march of the Nazi murder machine; the endlessly repeating series of interlocking moral failings of the men and women who killed or were silent. The scraping and clanging returns too. Spilling onto this ostinato and added industrial scrim, layered choruses disharmonize with the instruments and with each other, keening in agonized counterpoint that echoes through resonant tiled chambers. Millions are dead, but history isn’t.

I have noted elsewhere a tendency even among the best filmmakers (and with The Zone of Interest, Glazer must be counted among them) to reverse course in the credits with the music—to lose focus and stray, and even to pander. Perhaps unleashing emotion at the end of this brutally banal (to borrow from Hannah Arendt) movie provides necessary solace. Removed from the film, Levi’s last lament is a powerful piece of music, but it undoes the spare, “objective” approach of the movie. Sorrow softens the relentless sound of death. The credits surrender to mood music.

Birdsong would have been more truthful.

After these horrors, Nature will never sound the same.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com