What would you do to extend a few weeks or months to your life? That is the intriguing question posed in THE GREY ZONE. This story, based on eyewitness accounts of real events, focuses on a group known as the Sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners who voluntarily assisted the Nazis as they exterminated thousands of lives in concentration camps. Complicity, duplicity and deception are major themes throughout and the issues are not as clear cut as they might appear.
THE GREY ZONE could have remained focused solely on the plight of these conflicted and condemned souls, but that would have made the pain of the story too much to bear. Amazingly, out of this same self-despised unit comes bravery and heroism rarely seen in stories of these dark days. Using their modest freedoms in the camp, the Sonderkommandos work frantically to stage an armed rebellion, an uprising that will be the first of its kind. Rather than revolt to earn their freedom from the camp, they choose to wage a battle with the Nazis in an attempt to destroy as much of the death “machinery” as possible. Destined to fail, this insurrection becomes the only armed uprising in the history of Auschwitz.
THE GREY ZONE’s depiction of Poland’s famous Auschwitz II camp feels, at times, frighteningly real. The fine cast adds complexity and realism to the thought-provoking issues raised. Mira Sorvino, almost unrecognizable here, portrays a woman who risks death to smuggle gunpowder out of the women’s munitions factory in the camp. Her character, Dina, is later brutally tortured to reveal her accomplices. Dina chooses to end her life voluntarily rather than allow others to suffer for her silence. David Arquette and David Chandler powerfully embody two of the conflicted men of the Jewish special unit. These are men tortured with consciences which accuse them for their actions (or inactions) and yet who elicit empathy for their desire to find a higher purpose for their lives. Harvey Keitel is terrifyingly ruthless as the German camp commander Muhsfeldt. Daniel Benzali as Schlermer is a bright spot of courage as the prisoner who would rather die saving others than escape with his own life.
Filled with horrific imagery, THE GREY ZONE is a dark and haunting movie about man’s inhumanity to man. Director Tim Blake Nelson effectively keeps the audience detached but involved at a deeper level. Some scenes are as clinical as a documentary: men are shown working hard, as in a factory, but they are working with corpses, disposing of them with intense efficiency. Viewers are frequently reminded that these men work as if their lives depended on it. Images of nude corpses, both adults and children, being tossed into a fire emphasize how far these workers have gone to stay alive themselves. Cryptic euphemisms such as cargo, research and liquidate are uttered by both Germans and Jewish workers, as if it is too troubling to speak of the horrors directly. Echos of screams through empty hallways becomes more frightening than actually seeing the people gassed in the shower rooms. Despite all these terrible scenes, THE GREY ZONE remains an emotionally compelling movie.
The story itself alternates between the conspiring workers in the crematoria and the heroism of a group of prisoners who want to take action before their own time is up. Sonderkommandos were typically executed after only four months of service. During their assignment, they were commonly used by the Germans to deceive arriving prisoners. Scenes of such deception are as troubling to watch as the executions themselves. Some workers played upbeat music in an orchestra as new arrivals moved from train cars to camp. Others added fresh paint to walls to hide the blood or hints of impending death. Still others would usher frightened men, women and children into the enclosed chambers to be gassed. Most, though, worked long hours disposing of bodies in furnaces, shoveling ashes and preparing for the next group of arrivals.
THE GREY ZONE is an unusual approach to this dark place in history. There is an eerie sense of authenticity that many will find unsettling. It contains strong humanist elements, numerous blasphemies, and many incidents of human courage, bravery and sacrifice. One prisoner tries in vain to save a young girl, saying, “I hope to God we save you.” Hope is a rare commodity in this place, and, according to THE GREY ZONE, spiritual faith was non-existent in the camps.
Those interested in viewing THE GREY ZONE must be warned that the content is very stark and disturbing, but the ethical issues raised are worth further examination. THE GREY ZONE, while inspiring in some respects, is a little too godless for a story set at death’s door. Christians would be better off renting THE HIDING PLACE, a far more edifying story of faith set in this dark time of history.
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SUMMARY: The ethical question posed in THE GREY ZONE revolves around the Jewish prisoners who voluntarily assisted the Nazis as they exterminated thousands of lives in concentration camps. THE GREY ZONE also shows the only armed uprising in the history of the lethal Auschwitz II camp in Poland. Still, it is a disturbing view of this dark place in history.
(HHH, Ab, B, C, LLL, VVV, NNN, A, D, MMM) Very strong humanist worldview as Jews are exterminated in Nazi death camps, with humanist worldviews of Jewish workers allowing themselves to be used for their own selfish purposes and strong anti-Jewish themes throughout although a few moral characters try to stand against the evil and some redemptive content of self-sacrifice; four blasphemies and 30 strong obscenities (mostly "f-words"); strong violence includes graphic executions, massacres, so-called mercy killings, suicides, beatings with much blood, shootings, fighting, torture, electrocution, corpses being burned in ovens and fields, and German guard thrown into fire while still alive; drinking and smoking; and, themes of deception, lying, stealing, bribery, and constant threat of death combined with scenes of human courage, bravery and sacrifice.