We need to teach Henry that just because you show a light-hearted short cartoon doesn’t mean you get to show a depressing movie. The short he brought us was “The Rabbit Of Seville” – a Bugs Bunny take on The Barber Of Seville. Watch it now – it will be the least depressing bit of this review…
Henry’s depressing feature film was – unless I’m missing something – the first proper Holocaust film presented at Cinema 1544. His choice? The Grey Zone, a 2001 film directed by Tim Blake Nelson, who is perhaps best known for portraying the dim-witted Delmar in O Brother Where Art Thou? but has five feature films to his directing resume.
The film starts out by establishing the omnipresent rumble of the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau. And by establishing, I really mean over-establishing, as it’s there for what seems like the first 15 minutes of the movie, obscuring the dialogue and making me think it was just going to be there all film. Fortunately, it finally became too much of a device, and the director gave it up.
The film is based on the account of doctor Miklós Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew who worked as a camp doctor during the events in question and who plays a co-leading role in the story. It also features Harvey Keitel as a Nazi officer and David Arquette and Steve Buscemi as Jewish internees.
The movie is primarily concerned with portraying one of the Sonderkommando units at the death camp – these were Jewish prisoners forced (on pain of death) to do the dirty work of disposing of the large quantity of bodies that the gas chambers produced. In addition they appear to have had responsibilities in processing and herding the victims into the gas chambers themselves. In exchange for this morally ambiguous duty, they were kept housed and well-fed…for about 3-4 months before each Sonderkommando unit was itself liquidated and disposed of by a newly recruited bunch. The Grey Zone deals with the 12th Sonderkommando unit, which served in the Autumn of 1944.
There are two main threads to the film – one involves a plotted uprising by the unit. With the assistance of women enslaved in the munitions factories, they have slowly smuggled large amounts of gunpowder into the camp, and they plan to blow up two of the crematoria in a coordinated fashion.
The other thread, introduced fairly late, involves a teenaged girl who somehow survived the gas chamber (presumably by being huddled into a pocket of gas-free air beneath other prisoners). While disposing of the bodies the Sonderkommandos discover the girl alive (but in very poor shape) and smuggle her into a closet, getting the doctor to treat her back to health – but having very little plan as to what to do with her next.
As it turns out, the crematorium plot finally (and pretty belatedly) is brought off, two crematoria are destroyed, and those in the Sonderkommando unit who did not die in the blasts/fires are executed, along with the surviving girl. And that’s about it.
Like any Holocaust movie, the shock of the volume of the callous murders is the primary thing on the viewer’s mind. Here, however, the twist is that (as the double-entendre title implies) we are also asked to think about the morally ambiguous situation the Sonderkommando are in as they work in a death zone, continually gray with ashes. If there’s anything uplifting about the film, it’s Arquette’s realization as he is about to be executed that they had actually done something worthwhile. The damaged crematoria were unable to be replaced/repaired in the waning days of the war, so they almost certainly saved a lot of lives simply by reducing the throughput of the death camp. And if there’s anything exculpatory in their carrying out their duties, it’s that they were not volunteers – they were forced at gunpoint to do it. But the question always persists there in the back of the mind – what if they said no? They knew they were dying anyway – just a matter of when – and their labor was necessary to keep the bodies moving. Even with their destruction of the crematoria, wouldn’t it have been even better to just refuse in the first place and force the undermanned Nazis to kill fewer from the start? I don’t know, but that’s a big question as you watch the film.
Technically, it’s not the greatest film, really. Some of the dialogue is awkward, particularly in scenes where one character is interrupting another. The sound levels are a bit inconsistent, leaving some of the dialogue difficult to hear (on top of the fifteen minutes of rumbling at the beginning). And the one advantage of a Holocaust movie ought to be that you don’t have to spend a lot of time establishing background. We know who the bad guys are here. But the film takes forever to get going – it feels like the first 45 minutes of the movie just didn’t do anything, and while the plot to blow up the crematoria is something worth portraying, it just didn’t feel like a full-fledged movie.
Part of my dissatisfaction with the film probably comes from the fact that there are any number of Holocaust movies out there, and this is one of them. I mean, when it really comes down to it, you’ve got Schindler’s List and then you’ve got everything else. In that sense, it’s “just a movie”. It saves itself in some sense by focusing on the Sonderkommando, which I didn’t know almost anything about, but outside of that, how many times do you need to watch people get murdered? It’s not a lot of fun revisiting it. If you can’t come up with a compelling and original plot, then there’s not a lot of reason to go there again.