The Grey Zone is the Holocaust movie that every other Holocaust movie isn’t. As Roger Ebert points out in his review, The Grey Zone denies us any kind of hope, which most other Holocaust movies do. Things may be bleak, but not all is forsaken. Here it is. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people who try to do good things, but the strength of the movie (or more specifically the script), is that it doesn’t allow you to find easy answers. Often the questions seem so difficult, that an answer seems impossible. I came to this movie after watching The Pianist (which I really liked, more than The Grey Zone), because the idea of an even tougher Holocaust movie intrigued me, if that word can even fit in that context. It is a good and uncomfortable movie, with some flaws that keep it from being great, but it definitely is a movie that stays with you. Which flaws? Some of the conversations just go on to long, reminding us that the movie’s origins are in a play (and all of it is done by Tim Blake Nelson, play, screenplay, direction), but the worst part is definitely Harvey Keitel’s accent. Everyone talks in normal English, but Keitel applies the heaviest German accent you can imagine and it’s unnecessary and completely ridiculous. Some of the other actors also evoke that feeling that they really wanted to play the part of a poor, conflicted Jew, starved and desperate, but this is not a movie that should boast itself with semi-big names (sorry, Natasha Lyonne, Mira Sorvino and Steve Buscemi, even David Arquette is more convincing). It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen about the Holocaust and despite its missteps that counts for something. And the fact that you’ll probably never forget some of its images.
But apart from all that, the movie is successful because it puts almost all the characters in situations of impossible decisions. Granted, the movie doesn’t really deal with the conflict of any Germans as they fall simply into the evil Nazi category (similar to The Pianist, beside one exception). We follow a group of Jews who are employed as the Sonderkommando, helping with the gassing and cremation of other Jews to survive a bit longer and enjoy some comforts. The premise alone tells you most about the moral conflicts they are put in. Would you help to kill and burn other human beings to survive? That’s the question all the normal workers in the concentration camp have to answer for themselves, but even if that sounds somewhat easy (your own life seems worth more and you’re not saving anyone by refusing), the actual work also includes lying to the people who are about to be killed, helping to steal their valuables, carrying them out of the gas chambers and pushing them into the ovens. How do you answer that question now? Is that worth living a slightly longer and better life? Especially if you don't know if you’re the next who will be killed?
There is Dr. Nyiszli (Allan Corduner), who helps Josef Mengele with his experiments, so that his family survives. He mostly seems calm and relaxed about his work, but you see that it’s only possible for him to do this job, because he completely detaches himself from it. He does it out of love for his family, but you see what it does to him anyway. “There is no meaning,” he says at one point and again that is a question the movie asks. Is there meaning if these things happen? Does it mean something to live such a life instead of not living? The doctor is interesting because unlike the workers, he is a person of authority. And what else is the Holocaust then a story of authority? People are terminated because someone tells them too. Despite some oversimplification in the depiction of Nazis in many fictions, there is no fun in this. It’s about following orders, about doing what you’re told, about not following your own mind, right down to what many call the “unimaginable.” Once you’re used to listening to authority unconditionally and repress your self, there is nothing unimaginable because there is no imagination.
Or consider the group of women, working in a munitions factory and planning to help with an uprising. They want to smuggle gunpowder to the men working in the camps, but have to consider the consequences. One woman asks: “If they find us, what do they do with the rest of our group?” Another woman argues that it makes no difference. The other women will probably be tortured if the powder is found, but since they are all going to be killed anyway, it doesn’t matter. Who is right here? Is it worth risking the lives of others to maybe save hundreds or thousands of people? And then it turns out to be true. They are caught and they are tortured but decide not to tell. Then other women are killed, until one of them speaks. It seems to be another impossible situation. Speak, and let the people who plan the uprising be killed, or don’t speak and let more innocents be killed. They take the only possible path for them. Is that the only answer? Could they have saved more lives?
As if all those terribly hard questions weren’t enough, the movie gives us wordless scenes of the horror of the Holocaust, probably some of the most terrifying images we’ve ever seen of it. The screams of the people in the gas chambers before the gas is dropped in. People being marched into the chambers while a band plays, while the smoke of the crematorium blackens the sky. Truckloads of ash. Endless executions. Piles of bodies being burned. The people on the trains. The movie forces us to look at those images, probably asking again: What would you do? What can be done? Is there meaning?
The movie ends without hope and without easy answers. It keeps its questions lingering over the dead bodies, the flames, the smoke, the ash. Its ending monologue is intended to make us think and while it’s almost too poetic for this movie, it at least gives us a little comfort in its poetry. At least this remains.