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View Date: October 20th, 2002

Rating: ($$$ out of $$$$$)


David Arquette Hoffman
Daniel Benzali Schlermer
Steve Buscemi Abramowics
David Chandler Rosenthal
Allan Corduner Dr. Nyiszli
Harvey Keitel Muhsfeldt
Natasha Lyonne Rosa
Mira Sorvino Dina
Michael Stuhlbarg Cohen
Lisa Benavides Anja
Brian F. O'Byrne Interrogator
Henry Stram Mengele

Directed by:
Tim Blake Nelson

Written by:
(story and play) Tim Blake Nelson
Miklos Nyiszli

Related Viewings:
Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000)
Schindler's List (1993)
Diary of Anne Frank, The (1959)

Official Site:
The Grey Zone The Film

Cast information and links courtesy of logo.gif (2059 bytes)

Go To Reel Rambling Page



The Grey Zone

Currently there is brouhaha over some comments made by Harry Belafonte towards Chief of Staff Colin Powell.  Basically, Belafonte said that Powell was no better than a house slave, kowtowing to his masters in order to gain favor with them.  The Grey Zone tells a little known, to most, story of the Sondderkommandos, internment camp prisoners who gained special benefits and a prolonged life in exchange for performing certain duties such as escorting prisoners and assisting in the disposal of bodies.  These people could be considered an equivalent of house slaves, since they had seemingly sold out their own kind in order to prolong their preordained destiny.  At least the slaves were not leading their own to slaughter.  Adapted from an award-winning Broadway play, the film sometimes shows its origins in its staged delivery and ease of the dialogue.  However there is neither dilution nor ignorance of the message and of the performances, especially from Arquette who shows a new side of his repertoire.  The film is not a happy one, nor a cheerful one, but it is one that will stay with you, bother you, and cause you to look inside yourself and consider if you would do the same.  If only Nelson could have shaken the stagy cobwebs from things, and sharpened the delivery of the dialogue more, then this one would have been a disturbingly memorable experience

There are unknown numbers of horror stories that arise from the atrocities of the Holocaust.  Some of these have been captured on film, others told in story, but regardless of the source, they are painful to watch and hear.  As an initial introduction to this story, I was disturbed at the subject matter; then again I think I was supposed to be.  It’s not as if anyone’s going to try and come up with a way to sugar coat things.  But there are little known stories that come out every so often that are fascinating, if not in shock value, then in sheer morality.  This is one of those stories.  Set in the cremaotrium at Auschwitz, Grey Zone refers to the moral state that these people were put into.  Sometimes leading their own to death, other times disposing of their bodies, all in exchange for some freedom, luxuries and a bit of an extension to their lives.  The Sondderkommando’s were prisoners, who were given the special luxuries of single beds, fancy meals, jewelry and such in exchange for performing tasks that the Germans simply didn’t want to do.  This did not save their lives, as they were given 4 month reprieves which only prolonged the inevitable.  Amongst these prisoners though, a rebellion was arising.  A rebellion against what was not the problem, the purpose of it though, seemed a little grey.  Arquette and company are organizing an uprising, which is deterred slightly by the discovery of a young girl who somehow survived the gas chamber.  The prisoners seem to be revived vicariously through the girl.  Meanwhile a doctor, whose novel the basics of the story is based upon, is working directly for Josef Mengele is having conflicts about the way his profession and training is being used against his own kind.  Sorvino and Lyonne are women who are just as steadfast in their rebellion, but still seem a bit defeated by it all.  The story is a bit hard to follow at times, with things never being totally clarified to a point where I could completely sympathize with them.  The actions and speeches were sometimes mechanical, and other times, truly chilling.  But shocking images alone do not make a powerful film, and this is where The Grey Zone fails slightly.  The film broaches the topic of self-preservation versus morality. This was the conflict that faced the people chosen for this detail.  Nelson definitely touches a nerve with this message, but his delivery gets diluted a bit.  It doesn’t take away from the films power and provocation of thought though, thanks to the dialogue and the performances

In this year that may yield some great performances from unexpected places, it should come as not surprise that Arquette’s dramatic turn is noteworthy.  His sarcastic nature and smirk have been toned down to a pained look of someone whose life has been taken away and who is fighting for every last bit of something that he will never have again.  His performance reflects that of most of the cast, but he stands out not only because it’s atypical, but because it simply just that good.  Some of the performers, Keitel most notably, seem to be trying to overcome the uncomfortable and stiff nature of things, but in the end, that causes the movie to come down a few notches and lessens it’s impact.

Ultimately, The Grey Zone is a film that is effective at conveying an emotion, but ineffective in its delivery and translation to the big screen.  The survival instinct exists inside each person; the difference is in what brings it out, if anything does, and if we can justify the actions that we take to survive.  The Grey Zone poses that moral question which seems to trouble most of the characters in the film. The dialogue is sharp but seems to come too easily and quickly, as if written rather than reaction.  This does not take away though from the power of the film.  It is disturbing, sad, depressing and powerful.  There are scenes that are difficult to watch, then again they should be.  This is not a film about happy things, it is about people who know they are going to die, trying to squeeze out every little bit of life that they can while trying to maintain as much of themselves as they can.  The Grey Zone is a good film, that should been more memorable than it actually is.


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