The Grey Zone

The Grey Zone ★★★★★

This is not only the best Holocaust film I've seen, not only the best WW2 related film, but one of the best films I've seen, period.

It runs much like a stage play, likely not an accident since it began its life as a live production.

I can't say how it relates to similar movies made in the 1990s, it gets compared to the good-but-inferior Schindler's List a lot; to me at least, The Grey Zone is much more comfortable among the gritty, hyper-realistic dramas that became de rigeur after 9/11. This film was actually released on Sept 11th, 2001 which is likely why it was so little seen and so poorly reviewed.

People tend to call this movie bleak, and while I understand why, to me it is not a film that wants you to walk away feeling only the bleakness, the hopelessness, the tragedy of the Holocaust.

It is a deeply human movie; it explores how love, loyalty, and dignity remain core to the human experience even under the most dehumanizing conditions.

I have never watched a movie where I was so desperate for the main characters to live; a movie I rewatched again and again because I wanted to see their faces again. I wanted to remember their words. I wanted to figure out their loving-hateful bond with each other. To catch of glimpse of the often invisible compassion they kept alive, even if it was just a sputtering candle at times.

We see the burden empathy becomes when you are forced into the murky grey zone between victim and oppressor. Yet empathy endures, however painful it is to carry.

The humanity shines through in the small but vital moments: reviving the girl, the Doctor's sharp rebuke that Hoffman not carry her thrown over his shoulder because 'she's alive, you know'; the shouted 'I love you' between a panicked Anya and Dina; the casual use of each other's first names (particularly between Max, Hesh, and Simon); the fact we never learn Hoffman's first name; the startlingly gentle way Rosenthal touches Hoffman's cheek as his way of saying goodbye even as he's cussing him out; Hoffman's returned goodbye ("Bye.") before he is shot; and the penultimate line, said while smiling with bittersweet realization, "We would have been neighbours."

This film tells the story of men and women who managed to hold onto the barest scraps of human connection, and used it to affect what change they could, to organize against a level of mechanized killing the world had never seen.

They did something.

Ultimately, this is a story about humans trying to preserve meaning while living under the threat of total annihilation. It is a commentary about the alienating nature of work; work that must become mindless because to dissociate from it is the only way to continue. Yet, living with the knowledge they are participating in their own murder.

None of them are heroes but they all deserved to live. None of us know what we will do to survive, until we are asked. Most of us will do anything. We cannot judge them for their choiceless choices. What they did for a little more life.

This film strangely feels like a documentary. It feels real and immediate, the American accents the actors use cutting through time, making each voice inimitable. No translation is needed here, they are speaking directly to us, the assumed English-speaking viewer. The assumed survivor.

Because the fiction blends with the non-fiction, the end of the movie left me feeling like I'd been drawn in to the lives of these real men and women, seen the horror of their predicament, understood their humanity, and memorized their faces...but I was plunged back into the dark when the candle was snuffed out.

This movie makes you a witness. Someone who saw it. Someone who was there and who understood what it was really about. This didn't happen to strangers, it didn't happen to people who lived a long time ago and who lived far away from you. It happened like this, here and now to people who you might have known, who were guilty of nothing but existing. And now, as the keeper of the story, the only one who survived, it wants you to tell everyone.

TL;DR: This movie is like the recitation of a long-silenced truth told to you at the kitchen table late at night; immediate, inimitable, and haunting. Go watch it.

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