Political Film Society - The Grey Zone

PFS Film Review
The Grey Zone


Those who have seen the original film footage of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, whether in the 1955 classic Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) or as evidence in the trial of Nazis presented in Nuremberg (1999), may think that they are inured to the shock of seeing dead bodies piled on top of one another in a pit. But they might want to empty out their popcorn bags for possible use while viewing The Grey Zone, directed by Tim Blake Nelson, who brings his 1996 play to the screen. Titles at the beginning of the film tell us that the Nazis at the Birkenau death camp did not use Germans to lead Jews into the crematoria or to clean up afterward. They used Jews, called Sonderkommandos, who were allowed ample food and reasonable accommodations to perform the various tasks; but after four months they, too, were executed. The story was later told by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli (played by Allan Corduner), a skilled Jewish physician who, in exchange for his life, volunteered to perform medical experiments for Dr. Mengele (played by Henry Stram). Accordingly, we see a trainload of Hungarian Jews disembark at Birkenau. To the surreal accompaniment of Jewish musicians playing Strauss waltzes, they walk into the death chambers. When they arrive, they are told to hang all their clothes on numbered coat racks, whereupon they are asked to enter the gas chamber to delouse themselves. Jews, then, rough up defiant prisoners, and we see one beaten to death while his wife is screaming. Soon, a Jewish prisoner closes the door to the gas chamber. The next task is to sort out all the clothing and other possessions for use by the Germans or even by the Jewish prisoners themselves. After the gas kills everyone, the Jews dutifully load them on carts, move them to the furnaces, and push the bodies manually along ramps into the furnaces. Then the gas chamber is cleaned and repainted, ready for the next load of victims. Meanwhile, women at a nearby munitions factory, including a Lesbian, Dina (played by Mira Sorvino), are smuggling gunpowder to the Jewish prisoners at Birkenau, who in turn are planning a revolt. When Nazis discover that gunpowder is missing, they torture Dina and her lover Rosa (played by Natasha Lyonne) to find out where the gunpowder is going; rather than divulge the information, the two watch as the Nazis execute one female prisoner after another until they run, hoping that the killings will stop when they are shot. The Birkenau revolt consists of a few rounds fired from an automatic weapon and explosions in two of the crematoria. A few Nazis die, those in the revolt are all executed, but the crematoria were never rebuilt, as the Russians were then advancing through Poland. Throughout the film, Birkenau's commandant Muhsfeldt (played by Harvey Keitel) importunes the prisoners, trying to keep them in check psychologically. But the most profound question, raised by Muhsfeldt, is why a single Jew agreed to perform such tasks just to lengthen his life by four months. The film is about the twelfth of the thirteen Sonderkommandos. According to titles at the end, Muhsfeldt was later tried as a war criminal and executed. As an effort to bring the little-known Birkenau revolt to the screen and as a vivid portrayal of the Nazi barbarities, the Political Film Society has nominated The Grey Zone for awards as best film exposé and best film on human rights for 2002. MH

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