One of the most poignant moments in the grave Holocaust drama The Grey Zone comes as a group of Hungarian Jews known as the Sonderkommando try to save the life of a young girl who has come out of the death chamber alive. These Sonderkommando assisted the Nazis in the killing of fellow Jews in exchange for a four-month reprieve from their own death sentence. They received better food and more comfortable living quarters, but they knew all along that their time would eventually reach a similar, tragic end. "It makes no difference, we're dead anyway," one of the men coils. But for this one fleeting moment, their thoughts of death elude them as they rescue this seemingly inconsequential girl.
Many scenes, like the above, though thoroughly bleak and depressing, exemplify why The Grey Zone is such a beautiful film. Based on true events as told in the book Auschwitz: a Doctor's Eyewitness Account, the film chronicles the struggles faced by these Sonderkommando as they plan and eventually execute a fatal uprising that destroys two crematoriums inside the Auschwitz II-Birkenau death camp.
The film is aptly named for the moral divides and the choices that those inside the camp are forced to confront as they struggle to survive. Hoffman (David Arquette) and Abramowics (Steve Buscemi) lead this group of Sonderkommando as they herd fellow Jews into the death chamber for execution, and later dispose of their lifeless bodies in the fiery ovens. When they uncover the live girl from the death chamber, they instantly decide to save her life but fear the consequences that choice may have negative impacts on their pending revolt.
The Sonderkommando are working under the watchful eye of Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel), the alcoholic Nazi officer in charge of the camp who has suspicions the Sonderkommando are organizing a rebellion. He probes doctor Miklos Nyiszli (Allan Corduner) for information on the revolt. Nyiszli, a Jew, is also assisting the Nazis by conducting experiments on selected prisoners in exchange for the survival of his own family. Nyiszli must choose whether to share what he knows of the planned revolt with Muhsfeldt to ensure his family's continued safety or stay silent in support of his countrymen.
The Sonderkommando are provided gunpowder for their revolt by two Jewish women working in a nearby munitions camp. These women, Dina and Rosa (Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne) are subjected to interrogations where they are tortured for not revealing the plot. Later, frustrated by the women's refusal to talk, Nazi officers execute numerous innocent people at point blank range during one of the film's most disturbing scenes. Rosa and Dina choose to remain silent; however, one wonders if spoiling the plot could have actually saved more lives.
Director Tim Blake Nelson is less interested in the gory details of the tragedy, but rather the emotional effects and stark reality of such murder. The Grey Zone effectively feeds our senses with the chilling sights and sounds from within the camp to create a completely numbing experience. Nelson allows his camera to roam freely through the action, enabling our senses to absorb the painfully honest emotion of those on death row. In effect, we're made prisoners ourselves.
This effect is at its best during a powerful scene that follows a group of prisoners led from their train, through the thick black smoke of the crematoriums and to a room where they are forced to disrobe for what they believe is a cleansing shower. In reality, they are headed for the death chamber. But instead of positioning us inside the chamber to witness the gas suffocate the mass, Nelson leaves us outside to view the stoic reactions of the Sonderkomando to the screams and last breaths of life from those inside. In that moment, my heart dropped.
The Grey Zone is complemented by subtle and compelling performances in all roles, not just from those who received top billing (with Arquette proving he's more than a clown). In particular, Kamelia Grigorova stands out in her small role as the rescued girl who never utters a word, but fully embodies the gravity of her surroundings. The Grey Zone doesn't give us a happy ending, despite the successful completion of the Sonderkommando plan. They too die just as many others before them, but their efforts were not in vain. After the revolt, only half of the ovens were operable, helping to slow the future assault of other innocent Jews.
One likes a hint of color.