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Echoes of Horror: Inside 'The Zone of Interest' with Johnnie Burn

A woman and child in bathing suits walk across stones with Auschwitz in the background.
Image courtesy of IMDB

By Dolores Quintana

For Jonathan Glazer’s latest film, THE ZONE OF INTEREST, Creepy Kingdom's Dolores Quintana spoke with the sound designer and frequent Glazer collaborator, Johnnie Burn. The film, which is about Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, who lived right outside of the camp in a lovely home with his wife and children, never once shows the brutality of the camp but instead only lets you hear it. 

During their chat, they talked about exactly how much sound they had to create, where they found it, and how a film’s sound can drive the narrative. Burn has previously worked with Jordan Peele on his film Nope and also worked on another of this season’s most buzzed-about films, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things. 

How did you become involved with the THE ZONE OF INTEREST?

Johnnie Burn: I've known Jon for almost three decades and worked with him on all sorts of stuff. He certainly mentioned this film a few years back. It was when I first got the script that I read it and was pretty amazed by what he was going to try to pull off in terms of never going inside the camp. He was saying it was mandatory that he would not display any violence. He was very keen to talk to me early on about how we would achieve credibility with the sound, which would be quite an important layer in the film. The discussions were not to the length where we ended up with the sound. I got involved when Jon sent me the script, probably a year and a half before production started, and I started panicking about where all this sound would come from. 

As you mentioned, I will try to avoid discussing the plot in detail, but it is hard to “spoil” the film because what happened is well-known. One of the integral parts of the film is the sound design because of the decision to never show violence. What was the thinking behind that decision? 

Johnnie Burn: Obviously, I can't speak for Jon. But I do think that we all know what happened there, and we have all seen images. We've all heard stories, and drawing on that, by the suggestion of sound and painting, the mental imagery in your head is probably more psychological and horrific than showing the images. Sound is hardwired to the [brain’s] limbic system, [which is much] more than showing an image. Also, I think Jon just didn't want to go down the road of showing such horrific imagery and crossing that line, particularly when it's been done before. I believe it's incredibly powerful, the way John chose to do it. But more than anything. I would say the answer to that is probably because it's been done before, and it's salacious to do so.

Due to that, the sound is such a critical part of the film. You mentioned panicking about where to get all the sound needed. What was involved with the process of creating something like that? 

Johnnie Burn: It felt like such a huge responsibility, on two levels, which was why I panicked. Because, number one, here's a film that will need an awful lot of good sound work for the film to work at all. Number two, more worrisome than that, given the material, I had to be so accurate and responsible with what sound I was using. Research was the number one thing for the first six months before production.

I made an enormous document where I read everything I could in terms of witness testimony and literature on the matter and found every photograph that I could. My team and I had to go about reenacting, recreating, and sourcing from pain in real life, wherever we could, and build an enormous library, basically, of sound.

When we got to the point in the process that we were ready to marry this layer onto the film, we wouldn't be, “Right, what do we use? How do we go and find it?” I would have that ready for when Jon was ready to introduce that to the film. Quite remarkably, that point in time didn't come until very late because he went through the whole process of filming it on location and reassuring everyone that it was going to be a movie about the Holocaust, even though there wasn’t anything like that filmed. Everyone was wondering, “When are you going to film the bad stuff, Jon?” He's like, “Oh, we'll do it later.” You know, Johnny's going to figure that bit out. 

Then the picture edit of this family drama [was] "Film One," which is what we called it when it was completed. It was only then that we decided we would introduce this other layer because we felt that "Film Two," the horror sound, shouldn't be informing anything, in any way, about how "Film One" was made or how the actors would react. It should be that "Film One" should be entirely blind to the sound of the camp. 

A man smoking a cigarette behind a gate
Image Courtesy of IMDB

From a psychological level that makes total sense because this family is trying to block out what's happening over the other side of this wall. They can hear what's going on but they're choosing not to. It's a wise decision to make because though they are refusing to hear it we, the audience, are the ones that do.

Johnnie Burn: Obviously, there was no sound like that played on the shoot. When [actors] Sandra Hüller and Christian Friedel first saw the film with this sound on, they told me they were blown away by what it did to their experience, their supposed experience in the camp. So, yeah, they blocked it out very well. But, it certainly performs, doesn't it? 

It does. From a technical standpoint, how much sound recording do you have of all the different sounds? 

Johnnie Burn: Oh, hundreds of hours. We tried to approach it in many different ways. We went out and recorded all kinds of correct period-specific guns, and we understood that the weapons the soldiers had in Auschwitz were the ones from the previous war. We also spent time with the actors reenacting and understanding the interactions between guards and prisoners. We also found how difficult it was in that process to have the credible sound of people dying.

We looked at various news footage of things like the prisoners being tortured in Belarus, for example, that happened two years ago. We sort of understood the difference between someone pretending that they're in pain and what it sounds like in real life. That sort of guided us, but we did all sorts to try to find better versions of what we had.

Visiting lower division football matches where people shout in pain, the young men, that kind of thing. Going to the riots in Paris and recording sounds of people shouting there for the French prisoners. Over two years, we went a lot around Europe. We hung around in Berlin at night, at 3 am when people empty out of nightclubs and fight and things like that. We just went everywhere we could try and understand. The first time we dropped an acted scream onto the soundscape, it was because of how natural and real it was; it stood out like a sore thumb; it was obvious that the sound had to be super credible. That was probably the biggest challenge. The whole thing was that you needed to believe what you're hearing.

Being able to do all of that with sound design, and having two parallel movies going on simultaneously, is amazing. 

Johnnie Burn: It's really difficult with a director like Jonathan Glazer, who's so rigorous as well. For one particular scene, we needed to record Christian’s Rudolf again because he was the voice who said,” Throw him in the river.” He says, “What has he done?” and the guard responds, “He's fighting over apples, commander.” But the Polish insurance company for the shoot couldn't understand, because I was only recording sound, why I would need a horse for Christian to be mounted on whilst he delivered those lines to a microphone only. I explained his diaphragm would move differently and wouldn't sound right, if not. Those were the kinds of lengths we went to make sure that the sound was as credible as it would be if there was a camera there, too.

There was so much care put into the realism and accuracy of the sound. It's really haunting and quite frightening.

Johnnie Burn: It's chilling, isn't it? It makes you so aware. That whole section is 15 minutes of a sound story going on, without any other kind of visual narrative sort of thing. It’s quite a responsibility to try and get that whole bit working.

In general, with your work in sound design, is that the kind of thing you try to do with films anyway?

Johnnie Burn: Yeah. The last film I did was Nope, which was a big Hollywood film that was a very sound narrative-driven thing. Jordan Peele told me, I get it, you're a master of subjectivity, you can do that. Even Poor Things, which is another movie I was working on this year, has an awful lot of detail in the background narratives of how the sound works, even though that is a very dialogue-driven piece. 

Jonathan is a real master of show, don't tell, even though the whole process of how we wanted to capture the voices of the actors inside the house was more about hearing them in that space than the normal way that you would film something and want to have a very rich dialogue sound. At the expense of all the sounds of people's clothing, movement, and footsteps and all that, it was, let's hear the whole thing. For me, I tend to get engaged because I also have experience driving a hard sound narrative.

THE ZONE OF INTEREST is in theaters.


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