When I teach the Holocaust, I present my students with a dilemma. You are a Jew working in a concentration camp. To stay alive, you have the job of removing the corpses from the gas chamber and bringing them to the crematorium. One day a little girl is found alive among the bodies. You and your fellow workers have to decide whether you will risk your lives by trying to smuggle her into the female population or turn her over to the S.S. This dilemma is based on an actual incident. That incident is part of the plot of a movie entitled “The Grey Zone”. The movie was directed by Tim Blake Nelson (the goofy Delmar in “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?”). Looks can be deceiving, he was the only member of the cast or crew who had read the Odyssey. He wrote the play that the movie is based on and then the screenplay. His research came from the book Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli. The movie was filmed in Bulgaria. Actual plans for the camp were used to make a 90% scaled replica of the crematoria and barracks.
There have been many Holocaust movies, but few have dealt with the Sonderkommandos. These were the “special units” that removed the bodies from the gas chambers. They were given better food and housing, but they joined the corpses after a few months. The movie is set in Auschwitz II – Birkenau in August, 1944. Dr. Nyiszli (Allan Corduner) meets the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele and decides to collude with him on his human guinea pig experiments. He figures the arrangement will help keep his wife and daughter out of the gas chamber. He also has the attitude that at least some science might come from the experiments. The other plot line involves a plot by some of the sonderkommandos to blow up the crematoria and the gas chamber. They are aware that the clock is ticking on their employment. In order to blow up the buildings, a trio of extremely brave women are smuggling gun powder to them from the munitions factory.
The movie hits several Holocaust images – the band playing as the Jews enter the “showers”, the burning of the Hungarian Jews in pits, the sorting of belongings. However, the movie is not interested in depicting life in the camp. In fact, the sonderkommandos are living a much better life than the typical prisoners. They are literally feasting in their comfortable barracks. This is not “Schindler’s List”, it is closer to “Escape from Sobibor” because it deals with resistance to the “Final Solution”. Unlike that movie, “The Grey Zone” digs deep into ethics and choices. The sabotage plot is going well until Hoffman (David Arquette) discovers a young girl among the bodies. Nyiszli is brought in to help her recover. He is let in on the plot. Now we have two dilemmas. What to do with the girl and should Nyiszli use his new knowledge to save his family? He is under pressure from an S.S. officer named Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel) to tell about any plotting in exchange for preferential treatment for Nyiszli’s family. These two arcs will get us to the explosive final scene.
“The Grey Zone” is an outstanding movie. The reason it is not well known is it is grim, even for a Holocaust movie. It also did not get much in the way of marketing. It made less than $1 million! The budget was a measly $5 million. Not a lot of it went to the cast, which is not all-star, but does have some excellent actors. Harvey Keitel is great as Muhsfeldt. The character is not your typical evil Nazi and is not predictable. In fact, the whole movie is unpredictable – other than the obvious failure of the plot. David Arquette plays against type as Hoffman. He has a very powerful scene involving a Hungarian Jew who argues with him before going in the gas chamber. It is one of several shocking moments in the movie. The standout among the cast is David Chandler as Rosenthal.
Aside from the great acting and interesting blend of cinematography (mostly hand-held and some POV), the strength of the movie is in the provoking of thoughts. Should the girl be saved? Is Nyiszli a villain or a man doing whatever it takes to save his family? Are the sonderkommandos in need of redemption? Most importantly, what would you do in the circumstances the movie posits? The film is a welcome addition to the Holocaust subgenre of war movies. It is instructive of the sonderkommandos and covers several aspects of Auschwitz that are seldom portrayed in Holocaust movies. It also is based on a true story so there is a history lesson here. (See below for how accurate the movie is.)
“The Grey Zone” is one of the top five Holocaust movies. It is tough to watch because most of the movies in this subgenre have relatively positive endings. This one is entertaining, but depressing. Shouldn’t you be depressed when you finish watching a Holocaust movie? I’m not criticizing movies like “Schindler’s List” or “Escape from Sobibor” because they tell true stories and those stories emphasize the strength of the human spirit. But we need movies that question human behavior and decisions made under difficult circumstances. Thank God this movie will be as close as you get to the “what if?” scenarios Nyiszli and the gas commandos faced.
GRADE = A
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie accurately depicts the work of the sonderkommandos. These were squads of Jews who were forced into the “special units” when they first arrived at the camp. Their job was to remove the corpses from the gas chambers and transport them to the crematoria. It was not unusual for them to come into contact with the bodies of dead family members. In exchange for this work, they were isolated from the rest of the prisoners and lived in their own barracks. The barracks was nicer and they were well fed. They were given food, medicines, and cigarettes accumulated from the victims. The feasting shown in the movie was probably exaggerated, but they certainly were better off than the other Jews. They also were protected from being shot by the guards for minor infractions or just because the guard was having a bad day. Since they were “bearers of secrets”, they could not be allowed to survive, so every three months or so they were liquidated. The replacement sonderkommandos’ first job was to dispose of their predecessors.
The incident involving the young girl (she was probably around 15) was based on Nyiszli’s recollection. The girl possibly survived by being under the crush of bodies with her face pressed against the wet floor. When the men discovered her, they called for the doctor and he revived her. At this point, he brought the matter to Oberscharfuhrer Eric Muhsfeldt who he had a relationship with through his work with Mengele. Nyiszli thought he could convince the officer to let the girl be filtered into the female work groups, but Muhsfeldt did not think the chance of discovery was worth it. He had a guard shoot her. The incident involving the girl was not connected to the uprising.
The plot to blow up the crematoria and gas chamber is based on an attempted uprising by Sonderkommando XII in Auschwitz. Small amounts of gunpowder were smuggled from the munitions plant on site by three Jewish women – Ester Wajcblum, Ala Gertner, and Regina Safirsztain. The trio passed the explosives to Roza Robath who was part of the resistance. The planned rebellion had to be moved up when word spread that their time as body disposers was about to come to an end. On Oct. 7, 1944 they attacked the SS and Kapos with two machine guns, knives, and grenades. They killed three and wounded twelve. Part of a crematorium was destroyed, but for the most part the uprising was a failure. Some did manage to escape, but were soon recaptured. 200 were executed in a manner similar to the movie. The four women were ferreted out after the event, tortured, and executed.
Miklos Nyiszli was a Jewish doctor who arrived at Auschwitz with his wife and daughter in 1944. He volunteered as a doctor and caught the attention of Josef Mengele. Mengele put him to work doing autopsies and helping with his experiments. Some of this involved Mengele’s twins. His work and a bribe saved his family from the gas chamber. They all survived the war. Some historians dispute his information about the Sonderkommando.
Erich Muhfeldt was a mass murderer who was executed for war crimes after the war. He participated in the mass executions that attempted to cover up Madjanek when the camp was destroyed after the escape. He then ended up at Auschwitz and was in charge of Sonderkommando XII, He did have a creepy relationship with Nyiszli similar to the one shown in the film.