The Grey Zone
Cast: David Arquette, Daniel Benzali, Steve Buscemi, David Chandler, Allan Corduner

Tim Blake Nelson

Writing credits: Tim Blake Nelson
Distributor: Lions Gate Films * 108 min
Rated: Not Rated
  (USA 2002)

There's a phrase in Yiddish, "shandeh far di goyim", which, loosely translated, means "embarrassment in front of the gentiles." When the Son of Sam killer turns out to be named Berkowitz, it's a shandeh far di goyim. When Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken went on trial, it was a shandeh far di goyim. That Andrew Fastow is the only Enron crook who's been indicted is a shandeh far di goyim. This concept isn't particular to Jews, it exists wherever a member of your group, whatever it is, does something shameful and you fear it reflects badly on you. The Italian-Americans who protest THE SOPRANOS understand this concept well.

The existing body of cinematic work dealing with the Holocaust has tended to focus on the noble and the heroic among the denizens of Hitler's concentration camps. Even SCHINDLER'S LIST, which is commonly regarded as THE masterpiece of Holocaust cinema, has a peculiar Spielbergian optimism to it, despite its few scenes dealing with the brutality of the camps. In the camps of Spielberg, no one is frightened, no one loses his/her humanity, everyone faces death bravely, and the triumph of the human spirit shines through in the form of the Schindlerjuden, shown alongside the actors who portray them, in perhaps THE most moving moment of the film.

Yet the truth is far more complicated.

In the Auschwitz II Birkenau camp, successive groups of Jewish prisoners were singled out and assigned as Sönderkommandos -- prisoners granted special treatment in the form of special privileges -- such as blankets, food and liquor -- and up to four months of additional survival -- as payment for a truly horrendous work detail. Their job was to herd Jews into the gas chambers, clean the chambers afterwards, and dispose of the bodies in the camp's four crematoria.

As one doomed character in Tim Blake Nelson's bleak drama THE GREY ZONE asks, "How can Jews do this to other Jews?" Salmon Lewenthal, a Sönderkommando who perished in Birkenau, states in his surviving diary: "The truth is that one wants to live at any cost, one wants to live because one lives...because the whole world lives."

Nelson, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor, is best known for his slack-jawed comic portrayals in films such as O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU and THE GOOD GIRL. In this film, his second behind the camera, he takes on perhaps the most serious question one can ask: What will we do to survive? Is there a threshold below which we will no longer degrade ourselves or our morality, even if it means our life? When does life have so little meaning that death is preferable? Is any one of us equipped, without facing such choices, to predict where that threshold is within himself? "Holocaust films can distance us as describing another place and time," he says. This movie...must feel for the audience as if it's happening now."

And indeed it does. THE GREY ZONE is a bleak, unflinching, and ultimately spellbinding account of the moral dilemmas that faced those unlucky enough to be damned to this horrendous fate; one arguably worse than those who were put to death quickly. Why would anyone participate in the annihilation of one's own people, some of them one's own neighbors and even, in some cases, family?

Loosely based on Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account, by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, who had worked with the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, the minimal plot deals with the day-to-day survival machinations of the twelfth group of Sönderkommandos leading up to the only successful uprising to take place at the camps. On October 7, 1944, this group successfully blew up two of the four crematoria. Without ending the mass exterminations being committed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the reduction in capacity did help slow the pace. With Allied planes flying over daily and the end of the war hopefully in sight, the Sönderkommandos were merely, as one character says, "...just trying to make it to the next day."

For a Sönderkommando named Hoffman (a surprisingly effective David Arquette), getting through one particular day involves the ultimate moral dilemma. Having beaten to death the aforementioned man who questioned how Jews could participate in the massacre of other Jews, then reassuring the rest that they would be reunited with their belongings after their "shower" and herding them into the chamber, he finds a young girl who has survived the gas. "I want you to survive," he tells her after Dr. Myiszli revives her. "I want you to survive more than anything." However, her survival means an increasing likelihood that the planned uprising will be discovered. Does saving one life atone for one's role in annihilating so many others? Is one life worth jeopardizing an uprising that might save many others, at least temporarily?

The characters, both fictional and real, are vividly brought to life by a strong ensemble cast. Harvey Keitel, in a highly stylized performance that is unfortunately reminiscent at times of Mel Brooks' Hitler in TO BE OR NOT TO BE, is Oberschefuhrer Muhsfeldt, the archetypal "good soldier" who just may have some reservations about his job. The actors portraying the Jewish characters, while not all Jewish, at least LOOK plausibly Jewish for once, albeit a tad well-fed, even for concentration camp residents receiving preferred treatment. Rosenthal (David Chandler) is the hardened realist. Schlermer (Daniel Benzali) is motivated by survival. Abramowicz (Steve Buscemi) is the cynical huckster. Natasha Lyonne and Mira Sorvino are women working in a munitions factory, squirreling away gunpowder for the uprising, who are ultimately faced with the dilemma of revealing their hiding place or causing the summary execution of other women in their block. Nyiszli himself is portrayed in a devastating performance by Allan Corduner as a healer forced to perform the most unspeakable procedures as right-hand man to the infamous Dr. Mengele.

Nelson's direction of these characters plays at times like a particularly gruesome 1950's television drama -- Twelve Angry Jews. Yet the claustrophobic feel of the piece works well in this setting. Combined with the relentless low hum in the film's soundtrack, the feeling of being trapped in a nightmare embraces the audience as well. Nelson shows an impeccable sense of when to allow a visual to speak for itself, as in a preditable but still highly effective scene in which Jewish musicians in their camp uniforms perform Strauss waltzes to "welcome" newcomers to the camp as the latter are herded into an underground bunker in which they will be exterminated. The camera pans back to show this long line of victims -- and the smoke of the crematoria in the foreground. Nelson wisely eschews requiring his actors to feign the kind of generic Lower East Side Yiddische vaudeville accents commonly found in this sort of film. At first, the flat American speech cadences are jarring in this setting, but the incongruity passes quickly. These are not the noble martyrs of conventional Holocaust drama; these are tough guys who say "fuck" and shit" and participate in scams -- and trade the lives of others for a few more months of their own -- just to live another day.

A Cinemarati Roundtabler asked about this film, "Do you want to make a movie that will have only a limited appeal? Unless I'm mistaken, most people do not want to see something this horrific." Well, perhaps they should. Hermann Goebbels once said, "...the rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine. Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitious." Hermann Goering, Hitler's #2 guy, was Karl Rove decades before Karl Rove became a Presidential mouthpiece: "Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

The parallels between the efforts of the current U.S. government to keep the population constantly fearful and the Nazi rise to power are eerie. And now, with the impending passage of the Homeland Security Act, a giant database to track every transaction, of every type, of every individual in the U.S. in the name of fighting terrorism is about to become a reality. When the Administration has gone on record as saying that if you don't march in lockstep with them, you're "with the terrorists", can mass roundups of dissenters be far behind? And if it comes to that, who among us would be in a position to point fingers? From our still-comfortable middle-class perches, it's easy to judge what these people did, but could any of us honestly say we'd do any differently? If you think so, take a look at the fear that pervades the United States in the aftermath of 9/11/2001 and then think again.

Perhaps viewers don't want to see graphic depictions of what happens when fear and loathing and scapegoating results in the massacre of an entire population. But perhaps, given how life in the US is going, they should make a point of doing just that.

- Jill Cozzi


Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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