the grey zone (2001)


director: tim blake nelson

david arquette, harvey keitel, steve buscemi, mira sorvino, allan corduner

The urge to live is usually heroic in movies, rendering heroes almost indestructible and inspiring weak or troubled characters to persevere against any kind of odds, from wars to earthquakes. In Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone, the urge to live is the opposite of heroic, and the willingness to die becomes the sole opportunity for redemption.

Of course, the world where this happens is unlike almost any other, as The Grey Zone is set at Auschwitz, among the Sonderkommando, Jewish inmates allowed the chance to live a bit longer and the chance to live off the spoils of looted gas chamber victims in exchange for working at the awful business of the camp. David Arquette and Steve Buscemi, along with lesser-known actors like Daniel Benzali and David Chandler, play these morally compromised men with a believable mix of despair and bloodymindedness, drained of sentiment, even when one of them discovers a little girl, still alive in the gas chamber, an event that triggers a brave but doomed revolt.

The film is based on a true story, as is the character of Dr. Nyiszli, a Jewish doctor played superbly by Allan Corduner, who was drafted to assist Dr. Joseph Mengele, the legendary “Dr. Death”, at his brutal, inhuman experiments. Nyiszli is blackmailed by a camp commandant, Muhsfeldt, into informing on his fellow prisoners, in exchange for a chance to save Nyiszli’s wife and daughter. The war is lost, and Muhsfeldt, played by Harvey Keitel, makes it plain that no one, not the prisoners, the Sonderkommando, or the Germans who run the camp, will be allowed to survive the camp or its aftermath. It’s the kind of gruesome logic that informs every minute and every scene of the film, and makes crystal clear how brutality feeds brutality in a spiral of moral cataclysm.

Nelson spares us nothing, intimately showing the awful workings of the camp, a relentless onslaught of nightmare images that will limit the audience for The Grey Zone sharply. The camp revolt was a heroic act committed by men who were too tainted to be considered heroes, but their willingness to compromise themselves for a few more months of life, and the way Nelson and the actors illuminate them amidst all the horror, might raise a few uncomfortable questions among viewers who, no matter how many war or holocaust films they’ve seen, might have never yet asked themselves what they would do for a chance to live.