Did the Nazis raise the decibels on the orchestral tuning standard in 1939 to destabilize civilization through pop music? While the premise is worthy of a supermarket tabloid, Gunner Hall Jensen’s Oh, It Hertz! is a mesmerizing documentary that is both elegant and profound. It does start weird, though, so hold on to your March Hare hats, as we are all mad here.
The narrator and researcher for the film is Laurie Amat, a vocalist who has worked with the supremely weird band The Residents since the late 1980s. Amat can sing so high she can break a wine glass with the vibrations (she does so on camera). Amat is disturbed about the possibility that her life’s great passion, music, had secretly been weaponized by the Third Reich. Did Goebbels have the international tuning standard changed from 432 to 440 to agitate the nerves and concentration of the listener to lower resistance to Nazi world domination? Amat is on the case for a mystery that will span the globe, hunting down the truth.
While tracking down Nazi records, director Jensen takes us into the world of sound vibrations that plays like a f****d up episode of 3-2-1 Contact. We jump from Germany to Maine, examining the form of these vibrations, including the physical shapes generated when sent through fluid. While the patterns may look familiar from Joy Division album covers, some look like the vertebrae of an endless dragon. We then go further into the weaponization of these vibrations and how they can cause harm, which is what the Nazis were interested in.
“Did Goebbels have the international tuning standard changed from 432 to 440 to agitate the nerves…”
However, all is not dire because the palace of the wisdom of Oh, It Hertz! is reached by traveling the road of wackiness. The tangents come hard and fast, such as when Amat announces her favorite word is gonorrhea and slowly explores how the word rolls on the tongue. While it may seem chaos has descended into the editing bay, these wild sequences all help create a much larger picture of why this quest of who fiddled with the megahertz is so important.
Suddenly we are in the Netherlands, dealing with a dumpster diving audiophile who demonstrates that simple speakers with a little refurbishment can outdo the bigger ones. Now, we are at the Philips plant in Germany with an ambient musician, exploring the specs of the chime used for heart monitors in hospitals. These diversions keep everything lively throughout, as you do not know what will jump out next during this Nazi treasure hunt.
The film has stunning cinematography, with sharp, shiny details. Gunner Hall Jensen has helmed a real class act. The stunning sound design really makes this an experience for the theater or at least a good pair of headphones. Even for a documentary that is about sound, this is a party for the ears.
While the mystery drives Oh, It Hertz! until it is solved at the end, the real subject here is passion. The filmmaker captures the passions of the artists, intellectuals, and oddballs we meet and gives them form-like vibrations. You can feel the waves of passion pouring out of the interviews like a waterfall of enthusiasm. This is one of those documentaries that no prior inclination or knowledge of the subject matter is needed to be swept up in it. The fire that the subjects have for sound will spread to the viewer. Very good vibes indeed.
"…a mesmerizing documentary that is both elegant and profound."