It is easy to say that everyone needs hopes and dreams; to give up hope is to give up everything. But what if continuing life is simply not an option? What then is there to hope for, and what dreams to dream? But if most people knew that their lives were about to end, if people knew like the Jews in Nazi Germany knew, what effect would that have on anyone's hopes?
The Grey Zone is the true story of an uprising that took place inside one Nazi concentration camp, centering on a 'special unit' of Sonderkommandos. These Jewish prisoners worked for the Nazis, ushering thousands of fellow Jews to their deaths. The Sonderkommandos tell lies, telling other prisoners they are going into showers, telling them to remember where their families are and on what hooks their coats are hung, and by the hundreds, confused prisoners are led into gas chambers, collected, and burned.
And for their service, these special units receive what the Nazis see as life: decent meals, alcohol, beds. For a time. But why live? What reason to live another day, week, month? Even the very desire to live is questioned, when living means lying and killing friends or relatives. There's no hiding the reality of the camp from the prisoners who inhabit it, and there is no room here for idealism.
Both incoming prisoners and Nazis despise the Sonderkommandos; they are seen as animals for doing this to their own people. But they are making the only choice they are given: help the Nazis, and live; refuse, and die like everyone else. The Sonderkommandos even wonder if they are animals; one man questions their choice: "They are Jews after all," he reminds those around him. "You trust Jews anymore?" someone replies. He is talking about himself. Look what we Jews are doing to these Jews. Can we trust our people? "Who are our people?" asks one of the prisoners. Should they even trust themselves, for the Sonderkommandos regard themselves just as the prisoners and Nazis do? It doesn't matter who kills whom, or who tries to survive; in the end there is no survival.
Only one man, Abramowics (Steve Buscemi), a Hungarian Jew, dreams of escape and life. He knows inside that escape is impossible, but still this is what he wants. "I want to live 'til I'm 90," he says, a ridiculous sentiment to everyone else. "Suppose you make it out," one prisoner replies, "You want to look anyone in the face after what we've done for a little vodka and clean linens?" Even if a chance for physical survival outside, how can anyone escape the memories? Shortly after, the Hungarian is shot, burned, forgotten.
Inside these special units and amid all this execution, a rebellion is rising--one that is without misleading ideals or hopes. The Sonderkommandos are hoarding weapons and explosives in an attempt to destroy the machinery of the crematorium. Their goal is clear: bring down the Nazi guards, the incinerators, and if the need should arise, themselves. For them, this is the only act that might show them capable of doing the only good they see possible--though they know it will do no good. Every prisoner knows the Nazis have plenty of bullets to shoot prisoners if the incinerators disappear, and that liberation from the camp is not possible. But this is not what the rebels are after, for they wish only to defy the Nazis. This freedom to act will be theirs, even as it moves them toward death. Underlying the Sonderkomando's every move and every thought is this solitary goal of rebellion.
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In deploying brilliant color and startling juxtaposition of images and sounds, writer/director Tim Blake Nelson finds the life and reality that must have inhabited even the dark world of the concentration camps. Outside the crematoria grass grew, and this grass was as green as any. Fire still burns just as bright as when it burned those corpses. The same blue sky covers the earth now as it did then. And music, sweet and soft, is just as beautiful when it's played today as when it led thousands to death.
This realization is one of the revelations of The Grey Zone--that world is also this world. Nelson knows what has taken place (his grandmother was a Holocaust survivor), and he shows it taking place in the same vibrant world we inhabit This sets The Grey Zone apart from past 'difficult' war or Holocaust films such as Spielberg's Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, which both feel like film--black and white and a drained palette. But The Grey Zone, despite its title, is of this world, and this is chilling to see.
Without sensation or sentiment, The Grey Zone brings viewers to a place that they never want to visit. In other films on the Holocaust, there is a safety net of sorts. Characters like Schindler and Stern in Schindler's List do good for others, but they themselves do not suffer in the same manner or measure as the victims. And they also survive. We sympathize with them because they clearly do what is right with what power they can gather. In contrast, The Grey Zone has no one against whom to measure right and wrong. The prisoners here are selfish, serving themselves just to keep alive one more day.
Nelson wants to pose the hard question. He suggests that these Sonderkommandos cannot be wrong in what they have done. After all, the audience lives in a time and setting where it is all too easy to judge others. But how can anyone keep on breathing, when everyone will die any way? When the next flood of prisoners comes, it will not matter what the Sonderkommandos have done. Or will it?
Christopher Finke is a free-lance writer living in St. Paul, Minnesota.