The Grey Zone
directed by Tim Blake Nelson
(Lions Gate, 2001)

Most people know what happened at Auschwitz during World War II. Many also know that squads of inmates, Superkommandos, were recruited to help with the process of escorting new arrivals to the "showers." Their "pay" for this work was good food, good drink and somewhat better living conditions than their campmates endured, plus a few extra months of life before they themselves were sent to the showers.

But few people know that in the fall of 1944, with Allied bombers flying overhead and Russian troops advancing from the East, members of those squads, with the aid of women who worked in a nearby munitions plant, were planning to blow up the crematoriums where inmates disposed of the bodies of their fellow victims.

The Grey Zone is based on that incident, or, more accurately, it's based on a play by Tim Blake Nelson based, in turn, on a book by Dr. Miklos Nyiszu, a Jewish doctor whose life at the camp had been spared so he could perform certain experiments on the inmates.

But for all its historical context, The Grey Zone is less a history lesson than a morality play, a complex look at the lives of a small band of prisoners who have been given the choice of dying now or aiding and abetting their captors in return for a two- or three-month stay of execution. It's a choice that weighs heavily on their souls, but it's not the only one: their planned uprising is now on hold, in part because the prisoners can't agree on whether they should use the explosions as cover for an escape or whether it would be better, given what they've already done to their fellow Jews and countrymen, to die in the blast.

It's not an easy question, and it's debated at some -- perhaps too much -- length by a number of prisoners, including Superkommandos Hoffman (David Arquette) and Abramowicz (Steve Buscemi) and the good Dr. Nyiszli himself (Allan Corduner), particularly after it's learned that he's found his wife and daughter in the camp and had them spirited away to relative safety.

Their already complicated plans are then further complicated by the Superkommandos' discovery of a 15-year-old girl (Kamelia Grigonova) who survived the showers and their attempts to revive her and help her get away.

Meanwhile, there's the Nazis' feverish search through the women's compound where they suspect munitions plant workers, Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne among them, of smuggling explosives to the Superkommandos. All this goes on under the watchful eyes of hard-drinking, headache-prone camp commandant Erik Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel).

Keitel plays Muhsfeldt with a great degree of cynicism: he knows the end is at hand for him as well as his prisoners, but that doesn't stop him from doing what he knows is expected of him, adding an unneeded layer of cruelty and senselessness to what he does.

The Grey Zone is not an easy film to watch for a number of reasons.

Nelson, who co-edited, shot it in a color scheme so drab as to make many of the scenes appear black and white, reinforcing a sense of lifelessness. The rare outside shots, in which we see lawn sprinklers attempting to add a splash of green to the grounds, only add to the bitter irony. Moreover, Nelson pulls few punches in his depiction of the daily life of Auschwitz: if we do not see prisoners die in the showers, we hear them; the fact that they're lied to by their fellow inmates on the way in just makes it all the more cynical.

There is no shortage of bodies, and no turning away when Nazi officers begin shooting prisoners one by one in their attempts to get others to confess. And who could forget the image of the camp orchestra playing a Strauss tune as the new arrivals file into the camp and head for the showers. In short, Schindler's List is a theme park compared to what goes on in The Grey Zone.

Like any film made about Holocaust events, Nelson's will no doubt inspire a debate as to where he erred, both in fact and in taste, in his depiction of what took place behind barbed wire in Nazi-occupied Europe not 60 years ago. But one thing is certain: with its slow tracking shots down half-lit hallways and neverending variations on the theme of responsibility in the face of certain death, The Grey Zone is haunting in ways no fictional horror film could ever be.

Like it or not, this is one film you won't forget, even if you want to.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 17 July 2004

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