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The Grey Zone (R)
Lions Gate Films
Official Site
Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Producers: Pamela Koffler, Tim Blake Nelson, Christine Vachon, Avi Lerner, Danny Lerner
Written by: Tim Blake Nelson; from the book by Miklos Nyiszli
Cast: David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, Allan Corduner, Natasha Lyonne, Daniel Benzali, David Chandler

Rating: out of 5

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 saving her.

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.

—Roxanne Bogucka


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