The Grey Zone

on October 18, 2002 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
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   One of the little noted about but most disturbing--and controversial--realities of the Holocaust was the presence in the concentration camps of the Sonderkommando units, squads of Jews who were designated by the Nazis to help exterminate their co-religionists. They were the ones who convinced their fellow Jews that they were going to be taking showers when they were really going to be gassed. And they were then utilized as the clean-up crew who shoved the bodies into the crematoria and swept up the ashes afterwards. In return for doing the Nazis' dirty work, they were rewarded with special privileges of food, drink and cigarettes. Actor-director Tim Blake Nelson has chosen to focus on the 12th Sonderkommando, which staged a heroic revolt in Auschwitz in late 1944 and destroyed half of the camp's ovens. “The Grey Zone,” which is a brutally tough--and difficult to watch--film, was first written as a stage play by Nelson and is based in part on the diaries of Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish doctor who conducted gruesome experiments for the infamous Nazi Josef Mengele.

   The movie concentrates on several Hungarian Jews, including Hoffman (David Arquette), Schlermer (Daniel Benzali) and Abramowicz (Steve Buscemi), who are planning the uprising. Knowing they will soon be liquidated themselves, they feel they have nothing to lose. Nelson emphasizes the horrible actuality of the camps, such as the constantly humming machinery of death and the billowing smoke from the crematoria, but also movingly probes the difficulty of retaining one's humanity amidst such horror. There are stylistic touches that don't work, such as the distraction of having the Nazi officer (Harvey Keitel) who oversees Dr. Nyiszli speak with an accent while everyone else converses in unaccented English, but those are minor flaws. Overall, “The Grey Zone,” which is claustrophobically effective, is one of the finest, most humane and important Holocaust movies ever made. Starring David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel and Daniel Benzali. Directed and written by Tim Blake Nelson. Produced by Pamela Koffler, Christine Vachon, Tim Blake Nelson, Avi Lerner and Danny Lerner. A Lions Gate release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 108 min

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