The Grey Zone
review by Carrie Gorringe, 21 June 2002

28th Seattle International Film Festival

Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone depicts the lot of the sonderkommandos. They were the prisoners who, in exchange for a few extra months of life and semi-generous rations, agreed to assist the Nazis in their genocidal aims, "processing" those destined for the gas chamber, from leading them into the chambers to shoveling their dead bodies into the ovens (imagine, if you can, the prospect of separating dead babies from their mothers and throwing them into the ovens, or even of coming across the bodies of your own relatives, all for the price of some sausage and generous amount of liquor in order to dull the pain). The sonderkommandos most aptly bridged the realm between absolute evil and good evil; hence the title of the film. Of course, there were countless other instances of prisoners betraying others in order to save themselves -- other manifestations of living in a "grey zone" in a world where the concepts of morality had been rendered utterly relative to the extreme -- but the situation in which the sonderkommandos placed themselves could be interpreted as the ne plus ultra of collaboration with the Nazis.

Working from his own play (based on a true story), Nelson (who also appears in another SIFF film, Cherish) crafts a world of moral madness and overwhelming horror. It is 1944 -- approximately four to six months before the camp would be liberated by the Russian Army -- and a group of inmates are conspiring to break out of Auschwitz. Meanwhile, a group of sonderkommandos, while cleaning up after one of their routine "details", discovers, much to their amazement, that a twelve-year-old girl has managed to survive the gassing. The sonderkommandos, who are in league with the would-be escapees, find themselves in a moral dilemma: do they attempt the impossible and try to save her, or do they turn her directly over to the Nazis? If they don't turn her over, they risk undermining an escape attempt that had been months in planning, as well as their own lives and those of others. If they do, they risk the loss of perhaps their most valuable asset: the psychological block that keeps from feeling the ramifications of their participation in the killing machinery.

The overall impression of the film is one of hit-and-miss achievements. To his credit, Nelson's depiction of events in the camp and in the gas chambers themselves is accurate without being graphic; he allows quick editing and glimpses of the ghastly situation to allow the audience's imagination to fill in the nightmarish gaps in a way that direct imagery could not, thus making the impact all the more frightening. And yet, there's a vague but still certain sense that Nelson doesn't trust the material enough to convey the omnipresent evil. He allows the actors to descend into the melodramatic in an attempt to pump up the sense of terror (with the surprising exception of David Arquette, whose performance here proves that his range extends far beyond the realm of horror-film satires). The Grey Zone does leave its audience numb with shock, but also uneasy about some of the film's deeper defects. Nevertheless, it is a film that effectively underscores what should be a rather obvious point: good and evil don't always possess clear boundaries.


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Directed by:
Tim Blake Nelson

Starring:
David Arquette
Daniel Benzali
Steve Buscemi
Harvey Kietel
Mira Sorvino

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not yet
been rated.

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