| Tim Blake Nelson, tough guy. I’ll
allow as how that designation will seem unlikely if you only
know Nelson as the dim, sweet Delmar from O Brother, Where
Art Thou? That role, I assure you, was the anomaly. This
is the writer and director who debuted with 1997’s Eye Of
God, a tale of love, religious fanaticism, and death that
still holds up as one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.
Taking his title from Primo Levi’s essay on untenable
moral choices in The Drowned And The Saved, Nelson
realizes the story of Auschwitz’s 12th Sonderkommando (work
group), the men whose job it was to lead their fellow Jews
into the gas chambers and then to cremate their bodies afterward.
In return for doing this work, the Sonderkommando got to live
for a couple more months, and were given freedom to loot the
possessions of the dead. Those who refused were shot instantly.
Others agreed to do the work but then committed suicide. There
were 13 Sonderkommando at Auschwitz before the liberation.
Only one staged a rebellion. The men of the 12th, aided by
gunpowder smugglers from the women’s concentration camp at
Birkenau, determine to monkeywrench the machinery of death
by blowing up crematoria. The road to rebellion is not smooth.
There are those who feel that energies would be better spent
on publicizing the Nazis’ genocide. Then there are conflicts
between the Polish Jews, who want to act now, and who resent
the foot-dragging of the Hungarian Jews they’re plotting with.
Escape and tell the world? Or die destroying the machinery
of death? The Poles of the 12th believe that the former option
is a pipe dream, but the latter one is within their grasp.
Are they fighting back because they’re men? To reclaim their
souls? To atone for the work they do?
While Nelson wisely does not pronounce judgement on these
men, right away he thrusts you so deeply into the desperate
situation that you start making moral calculations about what
you would do and how far you would go and how much you would
hope for deliverance. Not that any of us—comfy, well-fed,
and only in danger of dying of lardassedness—has the right
to speculate. At the same time your wheels start spinning,
trying to figure what you’d do and what you could live with,
other wheels spin and tell you that it’s all too easy to sit
in a darkened theater and be confident about your moral line
in the sand.
Next, you feel their desperation, and the tension that comes
from any deviation from the rules and the plan. Change a step,
walk a few paces too slow—that’s it. You’re target practice.
Any act of rebellion or subversion requires that everyone,
everyone dance the steps precisely to avoid bringing
down scrutiny on the Sonderkommando. So when something occurs
that hasn’t been allowed for in the calculations, you can
see how it could all fall away. Even when that something requires
behavior that you would do as a matter of course in other,
more normal circumstances. And you get tense every time someone
is in a room where they’re not supposed to be, even for a
quick minute, because you know what the stakes are.
The something that occurs in The Grey Zone is the
unexpected and unprecedented discovery of a young girl who
survives the gas chamber. A haunted young man, Hoffman (Arquette),
removes the girl and conceals her, demanding that the camp’s
Jewish doctor, Nyiszli (Corduner), revive her. And
now you have one life, this girl’s, potentially imperiling
the commission of a rebellion to impede the taking of many
lives. These men, whose only choices are bad and worse, now
enter into a moral debate over whether to risk exposure by
Nelson avoids the treacly sentiment of Spielberg,
whose Schindler’s List was an unassailable work of
ennobled schmaltz. This is a hard, tough story. It was hard
to live, and it’s a hard one to tell right, and the movie
is as compelling as all get out. The energy and the tension
never flag. The actors are all on the same desperate page.
The nearness of death is palpable. The horror of killing as
just one’s job is indescribable. Succeeding on many levels,
Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone engages from the start
and never lets you down.