The Grey Zone (2002)
By: Drexl on May 31, 2005  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Lions Gate Films (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1. English, Spanish Subtitles. 108 minutes
The Movie
Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Starring: David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino
Screenplay:Tim Blake Nelson
Music:Jeff Danna
Tagline: 'While the world was fighting..a secret battle was about to erupt.'
Country: USA
Based, in part, on the novel 'Auschwitz - A Doctor's Eyewitness Account' by Dr Miklos Nyiszli and adapted from his stage play, Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone is a gruelling and harrowing account of one small part of what is, quite probably, the most appalling chapter in human history.

Nyiszli was deported, from Hungary, to Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944. During the 'selection' of new arrivals, Nyiszli was questioned about his professional abilities and put to work as a pathologist in the camp's crematoria, under the instruction of Josef Mengele. Nyiszli became a part of a group of forced labourers known as the Sonderkommando - prisoners (mostly male) selected for their professional abilities, their strong constitution or their physical strength. The Sonderkommando worked and lived exclusively within the walls of the crematoria, away from the disease and starvation of the camp itself, and were treated fairly well, in comparison to the rest of the prisoners - at least temporarily. As witnesses to the full horror of the Nazi's 'Final Solution' the groups were liquidated, usually after a period of four months, and replaced with a new group.

"How can you know what you would do to stay alive until you are asked?" is the question asked by one member of the group of another and so the same question is asked of the viewer. Nelson shows the workings of the death factories in graphic, gruesome detail - transports of people are led by the Sonderkommando, to the accompaniment of the prisoner's orchestra, into the crematoria, stripped of their clothes and possessions and then murdered (by the SS - the Sonderkommando were 'spared' this duty) and their bodies burnt, either in the crematoria ovens or in huge pits behind the buildings. A chance for redemption is given when some weapons and explosives are smuggled into the camp with the help of the female forced-labourers at one of the complex's subcamps. The group argue over the course of action to take. Some of the men believe the weapons should be used to enable them to escape, gain their freedom and tell the world of the horrors they have witnessed (or in some cases, simply to escape) while others, who feel that they do not wish for a life after what they have been forced to do, believe that their only remaining purpose is to slow the destruction in any way they can. A further moral question is raised when a young girl is found to have survived the gas. Nursed back to life by Nyiszli, the girl is hidden in one of the building's changing rooms. Some of the group feel that her presence could jeopardise the uprising, an action that could potentially save thousands, and so one life is not worth the risk while others in the group feel that she must be saved at all costs, allowing them a last grasp at a thread of humanity.

Nelson doesn't offer the viewer any answers to these questions. The Sonderkommando are despised equally on both sides - by the Germans because they can be 'convinced' to perform these duties and by their own countrymen because they, in their eyes, assist the enemy in their hideous crimes. Nyiszli, although he is the Sonderkommando's Doctor, is not trusted by the group because of his association with Mengele, while his only real aim is to find and ensure the safety of his family who are somewhere in the camp. Again, Nelson asks the viewer, 'What would you have done?'

Filmed within a partial reconstruction of the Birkenau camp, Nelson adds a great deal of authentic detail that will be spotted by those with some knowledge of the subject matter: the 'Red Cross' van outside the crematoria, the Sonderkommando member anaesthetising himself with alcohol before entering the gas chamber to remove the bodies, the aforementioned orchestra - so many small details are present that I would recommend that potential viewers read Nyiszli's book before viewing the film so these details do not pass them by.

The Grey Zone, while successful in bringing this little known chapter of the holocaust to the attention of movie audiences and equally successful in raising the moral questions that confronted these people, is sadly not without it's faults. The script is a little clunky and slow moving at times, showing it's stage origins, and the decision to have all the characters (Germans, Poles etc.) speak English is a major error, in my humble opinion at least. I'd much rather have had the characters speaking in their own language, with the addition of the appropriate subtitles, than listen to Keitel's lame German accent - more evidence of the film's stage origins I would guess but it does drag the viewer out of the film at times. One surprise amongst the cast is David Arquette - he really is excellent here. Anyone who has only seen him as a goofy, masked-killer-chasing cop or running around after giant spiders will be pleasantly surprised by the quality of his performance in this film. Nelson directs with a sure hand and handles the harrowing and difficult subject matter with the necessary respect, never allowing the film to wander towards exploitation territory.
The Grey Zone is presented via a high quality, widescreen enhanced transfer. Detail levels are excellent and the drab colour palette is well reproduced. Grain is kept to a minimum and print damage is non-existent.
For a film with a relatively low key score and effects the surround track is surprisingly subtle and effective. Voices and background noises are spread around the soundstage and the ominous rumblings of the crematoria are chillingly effective. An involving and appropriate audio track.
Extra Features
A little light on bonus materials.

The packaging does promise an audio commentary for the feature but it is, unfortunately, nowhere to be found. Nelson decided against providing a commentary for the film but does offer his views on a few deleted scenes and the reasons why he decided to cut them from the finished film. Lastly, an easily found easter-egg leads to some trailers. That's your lot I'm afraid as far as bonus materials go. Some mention of the source material for this film and some historical background would have been a welcome addition as I'm sure that many viewers will not realise that the events documented here actually happened but, sadly, none is offered.
The Verdict
The Grey Zone hits the viewer hard with some horrific and unforgettable imagery and also some thought provoking questions but, sadly, it's shortcomings with regards to the script and dialogue drag it down a little. It's still an undeniably powerful film though and one that sticks in the mind for a long time after viewing and, therefore, earns a recommendation from me on that point alone.
Movie Score
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