Grey Zone, The (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Auschwitz, 1944. One of the darkest times in one of the darkest places in recent human history. The images are stark and unforgettable: furnaces belching black smoke, lifeless corpses piled atop one another like firewood, and gray ash - the incinerated residue of humanity - coating nearly everything. It is into this nightmarish world that director Tim Blake Nelson plunges us with The Grey Zone, a harrowing film about compromise, betrayal, and moral ambiguity. Based on the true story related in Miklos Nyiszli's book, "Auschwitz: A Doctor's Account", the movie tells the tale of the twelfth Sonderkommando at Auschwitz – the only group ever to lead an armed uprising at the death camp.

The term "Sonderkommando" was coined by the Germans to describe those Jews who agreed to collaborate with the Nazis. In return for herding their fellow internees into the gas chambers and disposing of the corpses afterwards, the participants were given wine, extra food, and cleaner, relatively spacious barracks – until their time for extermination arrived. In their view, they were doing what was necessary to survive - their rationale being that they weren't actually committing the murders (a dubious distinction they chose to make). To others, they were traitors to their people. History has judged these men; Blake chooses not to. He delineates hard questions for which there are no answers. From the comfort of a theater, it's easy enough to stand upon the pillar of moral certainty and assert, "I would never have done that!" But, as one of the characters notes, "How can you know what you'd do to stay alive until you're asked?"

In the darkness of the death camp, an armed uprising is being planned by the Sonderkommandos, who have been stockpiling illicitly gained explosives and guns. While some of the organizers, such as the self-serving Abramowics (Steve Buscemi), plan to use this as an opportunity to escape, others, such as Hoffman (David Arquette), Rosenthal (David Chandler), and Schlermer (Daniel Benzali) are more pragmatic. Their intention is to blow up the crematoriums, then die fighting. They do not believe they will ever again see anything outside of the walls of Auschwitz. Thirsty for some form of redemption, these men leap to the aid of a 14-year old girl (Kamelia Grigorova) who miraculously survives a gassing. They hide her, and, with the aid of Dr. Nyiszli (Allan Corduner), Mengele's Jewish assistant, bring her back to consciousness. Even when Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel), the Nazi camp commander, learns of her presence, they stubbornly refuse to let her die, even when their actions endanger the uprising.

The Grey Zone is as powerful as it is grim. The film illustrates the darker side of the human instinct for survival – how men can be capable of things they never would have thought possible in the face of death. In order to spare their consciences, the members of the Sonderkommando display an amazing ability to lie to themselves, but, the more aware they become of their culpability in what is transpiring around them, the greater their need is for a taste of redemption. In the grand scheme of things, saving the life of one girl, whose mind may have been irreparably damaged by the gas, is a small thing, but to those who initially herded her into the chamber, it is everything. It becomes a reason to go on. Even the doctor, whose moral compass has been hopelessly skewed, risks his privileged position and his life to save her, going so far as to blackmail Muhsfeldt.

Tim Blake Nelson (whose counts O among his previous films) presents events in an unsentimental fashion. His camera is cold and unwavering; the pervasive gloom renders everything almost monochromatic. Unlike Schindler's List, there is no ray of heroism shining through the smoky pall that hangs over Auschwitz. The movie has a tendency to be talky, but that's because it's based on a play that Nelson wrote. There are plenty of scenes to force more sensitive viewers to avert their eyes, including a vicious torture sequence (mercifully, the actual maiming is not shown on camera, although the reaction of the victim is) and an instance when Hoffman, enraged by the refusal of a condemned man to give up his watch, beats him to death.

Nelson has assembled a cast that is a mixture of recognizable names and solid character actors. Some of the higher profile performers include Reservoir Dogs alumni Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi, both of whom have small-but-important roles. David Arquette is adequate as Hoffman, but his low-key portrayal is overshadowed by the work of the lesser-known Daniel Benzali, David Chandler, and Allan Corduner. Meanwhile, Natasha Lyonne and Mira Sorvino are almost unrecognizable as the battered, tortured women who endure the worst the Nazis have to offer.

With its numerous complex issues, the Holocaust has formed the backdrop for countless powerful, emotionally wrenching dramas. And, with so many stories to tell, redundancy does not seem to be a problem – each new motion picture puts a face on another previously anonymous body. The Grey Zone gives life and meaning to an event that is little more than a footnote in history books (if that). Like so many of its fellow Holocaust dramas, The Grey Zone seeks not to comfort audiences, but to remind them.

Grey Zone, The (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2002-10-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Mature Themes, Violence, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1