Voices in the Dark is an unusual take on World War II, told from the perspective of a man who finds himself caught up in the top echelon of the Nazi war machine without particularly intending to get there.
Hermann Karnau is a (fictitious) fanatic about sound, starting off by engineering the amplification and acoustics of vast Nazi rallies, but spending his own time recording and collecting every type of sound he can. Not music, but voices, animals, ambient sound, everything. He falls into recording the sound at the rallies, preserving speeches for prosperity. As time goes on he gets to know high level Nazis, becomes particularly close to Joseph Goebbels and his family, and gets wrapped up in some brutal human experiments. He ends the war in Hitler’s bunker, archiving everything from Hitler’s coughs to the hissing of the air ducts.
Meanwhile, Goebbels’ six young children are going about their lives, caught up in the chaos. These are privileged innocents, the children of a high-ranking Nazi, whose paths cross with Karnau because of his work with their father. We see their lives through the narration of eldest child Helga, who knows little of her fathers work until, between the games she plays with her five siblings, she attends a Nazi rally to watch her father speak. As the war progresses and the allies close in, the children’s lives become more confusing and difficult, until they too are locked in Hitler’s bunker.
It’s a fascinating graphic novel, based on Marcel Beyer’s novel The Karnau Tapes. The perspective is unique, focusing on the backrooms of the Nazi machine without any mention of soldiers or fighting. It’s a frightening, though sympathetic view of a man wrapped up in his own world, cocooning himself from the reality of his situation by immersing himself in his work. Meanwhile, children are playing, their parents trying to maintain a presence of normality, and we see little of the real work of Goebbels except what is revealed to his children and Karnau.
The illustration is subtle and evocative, building the all important sounds of the environment into the backdrop, making things like the moaning air ducts and echoing footsteps of the bunker a constant feature. The characters overlaid are simply drawn but ooze life and character, making it all the more flat and depressing when everyone’s imprisoned in the bunker.
A true literary graphic novel, then, which will appeal to sophisticated readers looking for a wartime tragedy that largely occurs well behind the front lines.