The Holocaust has a dirty little secret. It wears the same blue-and-white-striped uniforms forced upon World War II’s victims of race, religion and the Deutschland uber alles ideal, but these damned unfortunates helped to perpetuate the Nazis’ absurd, horrid dream, caught in the worst light of both sides.
Outside, a classical recital takes place on the grass. With the sun shining down and smoke rising from the crematorium stack, striped musicians play an upbeat selection with strings and horns, as hordes of Jews in civilian dress descend into a dark, bricked opening in the earth. Inside, men in stripes, alongside Nazis with rifles in hand, comfort the incoming with repeated phrases like, “The sooner you shower, the sooner you’ll be fed and reunited with your families.” As the men go through the clothes and belongings of the people led into the “showers,” they listen to a distant cacophony of shrill screaming, as if it were something they heard every day, or maybe even three or four times a day.
During the war, the SS chose groups of Jews, known as Sonderkommando, to assist in the gassing and disposing of Jews. In return, they received small luxuries and a few extra months of life. There were 13 Sonderkommando in all. The Grey Zone is the story of the 12th, in Auschwitz.
Most of us know Tim Blake Nelson as Delmar, the soft-spoken convict in O Brother, Where Art Thou? — or more recently, as lonely Deputy Daly in Cherish. Some might not know that he also has writing and directing credits under his belt, including Kansas, Eye of God and his directorial version of Othello, O. Moved by Primo Levi’s essay, “The Grey Zone,” in The Drowned and the Saved, Nelson, whose own mother was a Holocaust refugee, dove into the reservoir of his own talents to illustrate a moment in history saturated with moral difficulties. Originally written as a stage play, The Grey Zone is not only based on Levi’s essay, but also on the memoirs of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a pathologist at Auschwitz and assistant to the notorious Dr. Mengele. Nelson unmasks a primal regression within a cloudy area where thousands of people are killed and disposed of daily, where there isn’t enough room for self-preservation and love for one’s fellow man.
“There’s a rumor around the No. 3 crematorium, there’ll be a rebellion.” Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel), who oversees the crematorium, tries to squeeze information out of Dr. Nyiszli (Allan Corduner). He reminds him of the favors he’s received, like the safety of his wife and family. By making a deal with the devil, the doctor and those around him eat smoked oysters and capers, and drink Hungarian wine while others die. But we shouldn’t be so quick to judge, unless we’ve managed to successfully hold onto and practice our ideals in a society that doesn’t custom fit our idea of morality and justice. Rebellion takes courage, even if the only things we have to lose are some decent meals and a few months of life.
The Grey Zone gives voice to a story that needs to be heard in the sea of Holocaust movies that depict Jews strictly as victims. But the film suffers from its own difficulties, such as the residue from its jump from stage to screen.
We’re immediately bombarded with claustrophobic, handheld shots squeezing around cryptic interchanges in cramped quarters, with a group of actors we’re more likely to see in a seedy Bukowski-esque bar. David Arquette, David Chandler (who starred in Nelson’s play version on Broadway), Steve Buscemi and character actor Daniel Benzali (a Rod Steiger for the new millennium) make up the morally shady ensemble that slings dialogue slathered with repetitive Mamet-isms: “I don’t like the way you talk with me!” “You don’t like the way I talk?” Only the Nazis have accents; the others speak Americanese, all the way down to their “fuck you”s. Sure, the audience identifies with the Jews, but their confusing, plot-empty volleying often comes off as self-serving actor masturbation.
To the film’s credit, we’re far from protected from the tortured, naked, dead weight of freshly gassed bodies, piled, carted and carried over and over again until they’re fed into the fires. Very soon, we find ourselves numbed to the hellish sights. Then maybe we begin to understand how someone taking part in such gruesome activities, day after day, might cease to see the horror of their actions anymore.
We might ask, why haven’t we seen The Grey Zone before now? World War II has been one of cinema’s favorite topics. Maybe the current political coming-to-a-head climate surrounding Israel and Palestine has something to do with it, helping to burst open an unflattering but enlightening door.
We’d like to think of World War II as the “good” war, a black-and-white battle between right and wrong, with clearly defined villains and heroes for us to boo and cheer. But deep within a secret corridor inside us, we know that’s a war that only exists on celluloid. In reality, the defining line is a murky gray zone, fogged by fear and inhabited by a weak but hopeful race known as human beings.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.