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Grey Zone, The

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 10/18/02 10:50:02

"Another Story Worth Telling"
5 stars (Awesome)

After Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful and countless documentaries recording the stories of survivors, did we really need to see another Holocaust drama? Just like the slate of war films that were greenlit after Saving Private Ryan, their impact became diminished when we stopped wondering how many different ways there were to watch a man die. These thoughts were in my mind as I saw the smokestacks and heard the recurring sounds of the furnace in The Grey Zone, but as the characters slowly revealed themselves and the bodies began piling up, it dawned that this was as compelling a story as has ever been told about this dark period.

The sides of this atrocity have always been clearly drawn. Nazis were the great evil and Jews were the slaughtered innocents. To uncover any kind of grey area in the black-and-white struggle will appear shocking to some but unimaginable to anyone whose focus does not leave room for questions. Within the Nazi death camps were Jewish workers known as the Sonderkommandos. In exchange for added privileges and an extra four months to live, they would lead the prisoners into the showers with no water, assuring them that everything would be OK. The Sonderkommandos were not forced by the Germans. They were volunteers.

Living conditions certainly weren’t optimum for these unique Jews, but the large spreads of food and drink certainly gave them the opportunity to think about their actions. Like the military firing squads, everyone has a plausible deniability. Since they don’t pull the switches, how can they be held responsible? The Grey Zone puts you in a position to judge these people, but also asks you to hold your stones. “How do you know what’d you do to stay alive until you’re really asked,” one character notes. If hope springs eternal, then time is what one needs to have it. If you’re going to die anyway, why not do what you need to survive in trust that the war may end or you may be rescued. Or better yet, stage an uprising.

Dr. Nyiszli (a powerful Allan Corduner) answers not only to Dr. Joseph Mengele, assisting him in his “experiments” into twin research for the master race, but also to Erich Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel) who runs Auschwitz II with the motto “no one lives here without someone else dying.” This axiom takes on a special meaning when members of the Sonderkommando unit are compelled with the prospect of formally becoming murderers when they’re given the choice to hide a young girl who has miraculously survived the gassing.

Director Tim Blake Nelson (Director of "O", Actor "O Brother, Where Art Thou?) doesn’t shade the horror inherent in the film, but shows it in full color. You can see it through the eyes of Hoffman (David Arquette), on every possible breaking edge but desperate to do one thing good that no one can call into question or Rosenthal (David Chandler) who shifts his own blame onto everyone’s else controvertible actions or Abramowics (Steve Buscemi) who helps his fellow Jews enough, but still makes sure to look out for number one. In-between their personal fears and anger are the executions we’ve come to loathe and accustomed to, but the screams and the trails of bodies are given a new association. Who’s hands does the blood belong to? Are members of the women’s camp (Mira Sorvino, Natasha Lyonne & Lisa Benavides) more honorable in keeping a secret even if it prematurely gets others randomly killed? If its to potentially save lives or just to do one thing good, how is it any different than the Sonderkommandos?

Adapted from Nelson’s play, I’ve read comments that the screen version is still too stagy. Rather foolish criticisms in any respect considering that the entire story is set within the confines of a prison camp. The film is no more “stagy” than Stalag 17 or The Shawshank Redemption. How much more open does it need to be? It opens up right before your eyes with every lifeless body. It opens up your mind to think about your own determination in such a situation, even if it’s impossible to answer. The perpetual sound of the ovens, seemingly always heard on the soundtrack (in place of an absent music score) goes a long way into opening up this surrounding as the population decreases by the shovel-full.

The characters in The Grey Zone certainly don’t have the answers and when played with the kind of quiet ferociousness by Buscemi, Chandler, Sorvino, Corduner, Daniel Benzali and an extraordinarily good David Arquette, their frustration becomes our frustration in that we wish we could reach out and do something ourselves. This is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking that managed to push the tale of the Holocaust into new realms of abhorrence I didn’t think were possible after the masterpiece of Schindler’s List. Did we really need another Holocaust movie? I suspect that anything new we can learn from this inhumanity is a good thing.

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