In The Drowned and the Saved, the last book he wrote before committing suicide in 1987, Primo Levi recalls the Sonderkommandos, inmates who assisted the Nazis in operating their horrendous machinery of death. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camp that Levi himself survived, 700-1000 collaborators, mostly Jews, herded tens of thousands of victims into the gas chambers. Minutes later, they set to work extracting hair, shoes, and gold from the corpses. The Sonderkommandos were themselves liquidated every few weeks, but a combination of terror, envy, and cunning induced newcomers to replenish their ranks. According to Levi, these desperate lackeys of slaughter inhabited a “grey zone” of morality: “I believe that no one is authorized to judge them, not those who lived through the experience of the Lager `camps` and even less those who did not.”
Tim Blake Nelson attempted drama without judgment in The Grey Zone, a play he wrote based on Levi’s book as well as on the memoirs of Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish physician who assisted the sadistic Josef Mengele. Shot in Bulgaria, one of the few European countries controlled by Germany whose Jews were spared extermination, his film adaptation asks its audience to judge itself. “How do you know what you’re capable of ’til you’re asked?” asks Hoffman (Arquette), a Jew who stays alive for a while at Auschwitz-Birkenau by abetting the unspeakable. The question echoes throughout a gruesome film that wallows in the agony of moral uncertainty.
Set in the fall of 1944, when the imminence of Allied victory makes the Nazis realize they, too, are facing certain death, The Grey Zone is a study in the strategies of futility. Expecting to accomplish little more than suicidal sabotage, Sonderkommandos organize an uprising. They blow up two of five crematoria before, inevitably, they are all wiped out. At the most productive outpost of the Holocaust, death goes on.
“You’re not supposed to be in the zones,” says a guard to Abramowics (Buscemi), a wily Polish Jew who smuggles contraband across the boundaries separating one part of the camp from another. As punishment, the German seizes the jewels for himself. A viewer who wanders into The Grey Zone undergoes the punishing ordeal of witnessing physical and psychological torture. When a new arrival, declaring “At least I’ll die with my dignity,” refuses to surrender his wristwatch to a Jewish monitor, we see him lose both watch and dignity, beaten to death by the monitor before the eyes of his screaming wife. When Dr. Nyiszli (Corduner) ferrets out plans for the uprising, he decides whether an offer to spare his wife and daughter justifies informing on his fellow Jews. When three women conspirators are captured, they are tortured not only with electrified wires but also the sight of other women in their unit shot in the head, one by one, while they refuse to squeal.
Most Holocaust movies manufacture stories out of atrocities. However loathsome the experience, the viewer, privileged to see patterns and an end, sits outside it all. However, even more unsettling than the lurid images of mass murder scattered throughout The Grey Zone is the movie’s ambiguity. Though permitted to hold on to their wristwatches, viewers must surrender moral compasses. Low-key lighting and a hand-held camera plunge us into a tenebrous, precarious universe in which all that makes sense is Abramowics’ claim: “I do not wish to be alive when all this is over.” By the time the film is over, he has gotten his wish. Viewers who desire art that clarifies confusion have wandered into the wrong zone.
With the exception of Harvey Keitel, playing Commandant Muhsfeldt as a surly slug with a German accent, most of the characters speak American English, even when a suspicious German orders them to stop conversing in Hungarian. The voiceover of a corpse recounting its own cremation is another kind of horror, the intrusion of campiness into a drama of the death camps. So, too, is Nelson’s staccato, theatrical dialogue. It is easier for statisticians than filmmakers to capture the enormity of the Holocaust. The Grey Zone succeeds when it concentrates on an actual incident, the reactions of the Sonderkommandos to the discovery that one 15-year-old girl still breathes amid the corpses in the crematorium. At risk to themselves and hundreds of others, they try to revive and protect her. It is easy for them — and for the consumer in a culture where images of Auschwitz are more familiar than Whistler’s mother — to become callous toward mass murder. But our capacity for compassion toward a solitary stranger keeps us all from turning grey.