The Grey Zone (2001) — A Holocaust morality play

“How can you know what you’d really do to stay alive, until you’re asked? I know now that the answer for most of us is: anything.”

Justin’s rating: A true horror film

Justin’s review: I’ve always struggled with my — and others’ — fascination with the Holocaust. In a very real sense, I liken it to stepping right up to the precipice overlooking Hell, because we have a morbid desire to see what’s down there, to see if it is truly real. Maybe we should run away and try to fill our life and minds with pure and good things; maybe we have a duty to take a hard look into the past as to make damn sure it doesn’t happen again. I balance out this morbid fascination with this reasoning: You can’t forget history since it’d be a worse tragedy to forget, but you can’t dwell in it for grotesque curiosity, as that would make us sideline monsters.

The Grey Zone does what most of my list of most memorable films have done: It presents the viewer with a tough moral question that doesn’t allow for a neutral watching experience. Namely, what would you do for a few more weeks of life? Most of the Jews at Auschwitz II-Birkenau had little choice as to their destiny — but a few did. Special Jewish teams called Sonderkommandos were give four more months of relatively comfortable living (including food, wine, and some privacy) in exchange for assisting the Nazis in leading the prisoners to the gas chambers, cleaning up after them, and burning the bodies in the furnaces. These are people who have made a choice of Faustian proportions, to save their own skin for a while in exchange for doing the most degrading and horrible job imaginable.

Based on a play, The Grey Zone makes the Sonderkommandos situation very clear: It’s a no-win scenario. While the Nazis don’t make it explicit, the prisoners know they’re going to die sooner or later. The film begins well after these men have deadened their morality and consciences (I really would have loved to have been privy to a flashback where we’re shown the exact moment this choice to serve in these units was made), but they aren’t entirely devoid of emotions. Some want to save their own lives, and fancy the idea of escape — which was impossible, as they knew the Nazis would never stop hunting someone who knew the true details behind the camps’ operations. Some are resigned to their fate. Yet many of them, haunted by the betrayal of their actions, are seeking redemption in any way possible before they die. I kept thinking, if I knew I was going to die, how would I try to trade my life in service of others? What would be the best way?

One particular way pops up in the form of a little girl who survives the gas chamber, and is discovered by the Sonderkommandos before she’s thrown into the furnaces. Even though they all played a part in the deaths of thousands, none of the men can personally condemn her to death. This quandary comes in the middle of the worst time possible, when the Jews are planning an uprising to blow up the crematoriums.

Of course, I have a hard time giving any sort of typical movie review to a film with this subject, but I feel compelled to be a bit objective here. Despite dealing with a topic of massive proportions, it feels like a very small film, down to the camp and cast itself. The outdoors scenery is almost blasphemous in its tranquility — it could be anywhere on a beautiful fall day — and most of the horrors in this movie are alluded to (and fortunately not shown, except in brief glimpses).

Two performances are particularly notable. Who would’ve thought David Arquette could act in a drama and be so believable as to carry nearly every scene he’s in? Arquette is one of the Sonderkommandos, struggling to keep the horror and outrage of his part in all this deep down inside of him. He connects with the little girl, seeing her as a confessional on his behalf. You may not be able to forgive or condone his actions, but you will feel for how torn, how lost, how heart-wrenched he (and his comrades) have become.

Allan Corduner is even better as a Jewish doctor assisting the Nazi experiments in exchange for both his and his family’s lives. In every scene his voice is calm and detached, yet his face and eyes are testament to the torture he has witnessed and been subjected to by his choices. He is the Judas Iscariot of the movie, a betrayer who is more well-damned than most souls.

While we’ve seen many movies to focus on either the victims or the aggressors of the Holocaust, The Grey Zone is unique in giving us a group of people who are both of these, at once. Not quite the victims, and not as bad as the Nazi guards, they exist in that ambiguous area that lies for people who are unwilling to make a stand. I think you’ll find it utterly fascinating, as I did, to wonder how people can make choices to get themselves into that sort of situation, and also to make the choices to change it.

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