Hard to Hear: Why ‘The Zone of Interest’ and ‘Poor Things’ Sound So Disturbing

In two films that stood out this awards season, the strange and disconcerting background sound design took centre stage.

Emerging from the immense run of awards season came an interesting conversation about the importance of sound in cinema. Two films seemed to dominate the discussion: The Zone of Interest and Poor Things, with Johnnie Burn’s sound design running through both.

Viewers of The Zone of Interest, which follows the life of a family living next to the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, are abruptly drawn into the significance of sound as the title sequence plays. A haunting alarm echoes through the cinema as the titles fade and darkness engulfs the room. For four minutes, no images appear on screen, with only an echoing drone sound activating the senses. The darkness is suddenly broken by spring sounds of birds chirping – an unnerving start to a film in which Burn’s sound design pushes viewers into a space of psychological dichotomy.

Stuck between the visuals of an everyday familial routine and horrific sounds of screams, gunshots, and the mechanical churns of fire chambers and train engines, The Zone of Interest leaves its audience in a state of sensory conflict.

Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar-winning film is not the only one from this awards season bringing the often-overlooked arts of sound design and composition into the consciousness of the average viewer.

In Poor Things, Burn’s sound design is coupled with a twisted original soundtrack composed by Jerskin Fendrix, bringing viewers into the infantile world of Bella Baxter, an adult woman whose brain has been surgically replaced with that of a baby. Each musical piece transports us into the mind of Bella, dragging us along on her developmental and emotional journey.

In early scenes, the soundtrack sounds like an child’s out-of-tune wind-up jewellery box. Moving through the film, each chapter of Bella’s growth is not only signposted visually but coupled with progressively complex musical accompaniments, almost as if one could close their eyes and still form an understanding of the development of Bella’s story. It ends on a note of subtle maturity, the confidence of Bella evident in the pared-back music, with tricks and embellishment no longer needed.

Ramy Youssef and Emma Stone in Poor Things. Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Both films’ soundscapes creep into the viewer’s psyche, staying with them long after the credits roll, and the lights turn on. What is it about sound that creates this long-lasting and intensely unsettling emotional impact?

Originating from a need for survival, Maja Dyhre Foldal, who researches the psychology of sound, found our brains are programmed to pay attention to noise which seems out of the ordinary. When faced with an abnormal tempo or a visual that doesn’t align with its predictable accompanying noise, we unconsciously engage more with the sound to investigate any potential dangers.

In 2019, neuroscientists examining the impact of harsh sounds on the brain found that, when listening to severe sounds, sections of the brain associated with aversion and pain are activated, inducing an almost unbearable feeling. This goes some way toward understanding the discomfort viewers experienced during both films.

One of the main factors disturbing the emotional stability of both films is the abnormality of the sounds viewers hear. In the case of Burn’s sound design for The Zone of Interest, our brains compete with the misalignment of the seemingly normal daily visuals and the horrific accompanying audio. One of the first scenes where this occurs takes place as a couple lies in bed about to go to sleep, following a seemingly picturesque sun-filled family day by the lake. We see a mother and father weary after a long hot day with their children, yet we hear distant screams, yells and mechanical churning.

Emma Stone in Poor Things. Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Within Fendrix’s Poor Things score, the abnormalities lie in the odd flow and timing of the original songs. The moment viewers expect a key change, it instead veers atonal, or drastically deviates from the flow of previous chords, or an alarm sound chimes. It sends a signal to our brain and activates our nervous system: be ready for danger.

The brilliance of both films and their attention to engaging the viewers aurally has not gone unnoticed, with Burn winning the 2024 Oscar for Best Sound and Fendrix receiving several nominations for his compositions. While sound design has always played an important role in film, the appreciation of Fendrix’s and Burn’s boundary-pushing work suggests that, when it comes to audio experimentation and sensory manipulation in future films, viewers are all ears.

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