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The Grey Zone

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Grey Zone

Starring: David Arquette, Steve Buscemi
Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Rated: R
RunTime: 108 Minutes
Release Date: October 2002
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Daniel Benzali, Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, Natasha Lyonne, David Chandler, Allan Corduner, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lisa Benavides

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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

In Alan J. Pakula's 1982 film "Sophie's Choice," the title character played by Meryl Streep (in an Oscar-winning performance) must live down the decision she was forced to make while a prisoner of the Nazis. The Germans, gifted at inventing the most gruesome games, made her pick which of her two young children will be saved while the other is executed. Tim Blake Nelson's illustrates another choice in his new movie "The Grey Zone," adapted from a 1996 off-off-Broadway play and based on a true story. Some Jews were selected to be Sonderkommandos in the Birkenau death camp in 1944. The S.S. forces at the camp offered them life for a maximum of four additional months if they would provide important aid to the Nazis butchers by gaining the trust of other Jews who were shipped regularly into the camps for immediate liquidation. Their role was to keep the machinery running smoothly by lying to the new prisoners: telling them to hang their clothes on hooks, to remember the numbers adjacent to their coats, and to walk into the shower to be cleaned before being reunited with their families. When the Jewish Sonderkommandos shut the door, the prisoners found that gas, not water, was emitted from the showerheads. In twenty minutes all were dead. The Sonderkommandos would then line up the bodies and send them into the ovens. Theoretically the Germans could have done the job without help. In fact, however, the Jews who volunteered for the detail made the operation run smoothly and in return the Sonderkommandos were not only spared for up to four months (after which they too were sent to the ovens) but also received good food, liquor and cigarettes.

What would you have done? No doubt you could "answer" this existential question now in the comfort of your home. What you would do when literally under the gun, however, is a matter of speculation. According to sources such as a memoir written by Dr. Mikos Nyiszli who figures largely in this film, some chose suicide rather than submit to what they considered an immoral act. We could only guess that most prisoners offered the choice sold out to their Nazi captors by aiding them in their unearthly task.

In looking at the ghastly work done each day by these Sonderkommandos, writer-director Tim Blake Nelson ("O","Eye of God") is didactic in that he reaches out to his audience as though to say, "I want to educate you about one phase of the Holocaust." The story is nonetheless a gripping one, not commercial like Steven Spielberg's marvelous "Schindler's List" and while comics like Steve Buscemi and David Arquette have roles, they are a far cry from Roberto Benigni. There's no humor in this work, which evokes the deadly monotony, fear and inhumanity that probably figured even larger in real life than in Nelson's script, however cold and bitter the environment that the director creates. The entire work is filmed by Russell Lee Fine twenty miles from Bulgaria's capital city of Sofia.

Nelson effectively shows the infighting among the Sonderkommandos that makes a near-mockery of thinking that they formed "a Jewish community." A major source of disgust by all is the figure of the Hungarian Jewish Dr. Mikos Nyiszli, who not only survived the war but spent his incarceration living as well as his captors, even wearing a dark suit and tie as he worked side by side with the notorious Dr. Mengele. Because of the theatrical nature of the movie, Nelson gives the impression that Nyiszli simply looked under his microscope, investigation gallstones and the like much like the Ben Kingsley character doing accounting for Schindler. In truth he took part in the most abominable medical experiments dreamed up by Mengele, who by the way did make a few breakthroughs in medical science as a result of his torture of some Jewish prisoners raised yet another moral question of whether these discoveries should be utilized by doctors today to help their patients.

The daily grind takes on tension as the Hungarian Jews, played by David Arquette (Hoffman), Daniel Benzali (Schlerner) and Steve Buscemi (Abramowicz) plan a rebellion using powder smuggled into the camp by women working in a nearby munitions plant. Women are tortured by the Germans, who had heard of the upcoming rebellion and are eager to find the powder. As some key women prisoners refuse to talk, the other women are shot one by one. The uprising comes by accident rather than by careful planning and does succeed in killing a few S.S. officers and blowing up some of the crematoria before being brutally put down. In the one segment that evokes some individuality, a fourteen- year-old girl is found by the Sonderkommandos alive and scarcely breathing, having miraculously survived the gas chamber. The men decide to hide her and to try to keep her alive though this could imperil the rebellion.

The dialogue is the most theatrical aspect of the film. The Jews speak rapidly with clipped sentences, often interrupted in midstream by others, freely using expletives that make us realize that the forties for these unfortunate men were no different from today's times except that these people had good reason to use the four-letter words. So crisp is the talk that one can't help believing that David Mamet had a hand in fashioning it (which he did not). Harvey Keitel comes off best, speaking English with a German accent, learned by careful study with a dialect coach: in fact the major drawback of the entire work is that everyone else speaks American-style English when compelling us to imagine that they are speaking Hungarian and German. In one segment, someone speaks English while another corrects him: "Don't you know that she doesn't understand Hungarian?" This could have been a great film if Nelson chose Hungarians and Germans for the roles, using English subtitles.

Despite the absurd claims of Holocaust deniers, a great deal is known about the events of 1941-1945, partly from memoirs of the Jews themselves such as that written by Dr. Nyiszli, mostly from the obsessive record-keeping of the Nazis. "The Grey Zone," the title representing the ambiguous morality of the Sonderkommandos, takes its place proudly among the plethora of Holocaust films, a valuable addition because of its originality, its lack of sentimentality, its refusal to become slick and commercial. We see these Jews as doing what most of us would have done under the same circumstances, not heroic even when carrying out the rebellion which is borne of desperation rather than hope. In that sense they are not like the brave men aboard the United Airlines play that was diverted last year from a prime terrorist target, who may have saved the White House from destruction by giving up their lives. The Sonderkommandos were simply not going to go gentle into that dark night but must have realized from the beginning that their plan would be only moderately successful, that nothing of importance would be saved.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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