The Grey Zone

The Grey Zone ★★★★½

A person of conscience cannot watch a film like “The Grey Zone” and not ponder the current state of insurrection in America.  I was told years ago, by a very wise woman, that “every country has had its  rise and fall and America will be no different”.  That is a sobering thought.  Images flashed across television this morning paints a strange landscape of our nations Capitol.  Armed military, barricades and high metal fencing surround the bastions of freedom as we once knew them.  Tension everywhere televised with apprehension about what might unfold for all the world to see and why?  Because of one man.
     In October 1944 at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the setting though far more deadly and depraved, evokes dread about our future.  We like to think “it can’t happen here” but another equally wise elder from Germany, when asked why responded with “we could not stop him”.
     Director/Actor Tim Blake Nelson takes us inside the death camp.  He shows us with little restraint what it was like in the crematorium of one of the largest nazi extermination sites.  It is dark, it is bleak and it is hopeless.  There existed at that time thirteen groups of Sonderkommando.  Jewish prisoners recruited to escort their fellow Jews to their deaths in the gas chambers by the nazi regime.  This done in exchange for what can best be called fringe benefits.  In actuality it was an excuse to stave off their own execution for a little more time and false security.  (Sound familiar)?
     Director Nelson’s film is immediately disorienting and confusing at films beginning.  This I attributed to the situations that so many Jewish families found them themselves in when loaded onto cattle cars bound for hell.  Piled one top of the other, urinating on the floor of the box cars with no humane care extended them.  Herded into slum barracks until their fellow brethren command them to the showers with a litany of lies.  Hoffman (David Arquette) losing it physically on one helpless soul who is calling him out for what he is.  It is a shocking scene of depraved cruelty.  Murder being so random and common in this place.
     As we are introduced to various Sonderkommando we learn of a planned coup to destroy one of the crematoria.  Guns and explosive powder being smuggled into the compound by nearby Polish villagers via dead bodies being hauled out to mass graves.  The Jewish prisoners constantly telling each other “you are already dead.”  Against all odds they will carry out their task.  An undertaking  to inflict pain on as many nazi’s as they can in a futile effort to spare future victims this fate.  
     Hoffman, carrying out dead bodies after being gassed, comes across one young girl.  Still breathing and surviving the gas by being on the bottom and close to the floor.  He orchestrates a way to carry her out and save her from being burned alive.  He brings her to Dr. Miklós Nyiszli (Allen Corduner) who has a tenuous relationship with Eric Mushfeldt (Harvey Keitel) the SS-Obercharführer at Birkenau.  This act of mercy putting the plans to destroy the death chamber in jeopardy.
     The destruction has been documented in history.  When director Nelson’s film arrives at its third act he brings the viewers up close to the horrors of betrayal among the everyday work detail inside the areas where the ovens burn day and night.  Within the uprising we are treated to the sight of one nazi taken down and shoved inside an oven and burned alive.  A meager and minute taste of revenge.
     Much of “The Grey Zone” is dark.  Shot on location in Bulgaria with a set that accurately resembles Birkenau in 1944.  A final heart wrenching segment involving the young girl saved from the gas chamber is haunting and searing.  Her voiced over narration of the continuing horrors in this hell on earth clarified to my thoughts exactly what the grey zone was.  As bodies are reduced to bone fragments and ash, swirling not only out of the chimney stacks contrasted against blue skies and billowing smoke but swirling in the air around those new workers now tasked with the ghoulish detail.  Covered in grey soot and breathing in all that is left of the dead, their destiny right before them but remaining unable to change it.
     This film, based on a stage play which itself is based on a book, rightfully takes its place alongside “Schindler’s List”, “Come And See”, “Sophie’s Choice”, “Gloomy Sunday”, “The Boy In The Striped Pajamas” and other cinematic scalpels that attempt to dissect the craven hearts of men.

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