"We can't know what we're capable of, any of us. How can you know what you'd do to stay alive, until you're really asked? I know this now. For most of us, the answer is anything."The Grey Zone
— Hoffman talking to the girl
is a 2001 Holocaust movie set in 1944. It is based on personal memoirs of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish doctor from Hungary and personal assistant to Dr. Joseph Mengele
at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. The movie focuses on the rebellion by the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners who worked in the gas chambers and crematoria.
Stars David Arquette, Harvey Keitel
, Steve Buscemi
and Mira Sorvino.
This film contains examples of:
- Bittersweet Ending: 2 of the crematoria are destroyed in the uprising, but all the Sonderkommando and the girl they tried to save are executed.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Dina is subjected to electric torture by the guards so that she'll tell them where the powder she smuggled into the camp went. She refuses to break, pointing out that they'll kill her anyway.
- Crapsaccharine World: Compared to the rest of Auschwitz, the grounds surrounding the crematoria are lush, green (with sprinklers) and there is an orchestra playing happy music. Unfortunately, the prisoners don't get to enjoy it very long.
- Death Seeker: Most of the Sonderkommando can't live with what they've been forced to do — assisting the Nazis in disposing of the bodies from the gas chambers by cremating the bodies of other Jews, or they'll be killed as well. Simon discusses this quite extensively with Dr. Nyizli, stating that he doesn't want to live after everything is done. He chooses to die in the explosion which destroys the crematoria.
- Faux Affably Evil:
- Oberscharführer Mussfeld will have reasonably polite conversations with Dr. Nyiszli to compell him to become The Mole for him. At the same time, he's a dreadful deathbringer who doesn't hesitate to kill anyone, even shooting a child onscreen.
- Dr. Mengele in his single scene also acts with some measure of courtesy to the Doctor. It's clear however that he relishes the power he has over his subordinate, and is happily dissecting people for "research" and torturing children.
- Gas Chamber: This is the primary method of killing in Auschwitz, and the protagonists are Jewish prisoners who are forced to dispose of the bodies in the crematoria.
- Harmful to Minors: Children are killed in the gas chambers along with the adults, as in real life. The Hungarian girl who miraculously survived has to further witness all the participants of the uprising being shot moments before she's shot herself.
- Heroic Suicide: A female prisoner runs into an electrified fence to keep the guards from shooting more of her friends unless she gives them the information they want.
- Hope Spot: At the end after the Jewish Sonderkommandos have all been killed, it almost seems like Mussfeld is going to let the little girl live and run away to freedom. As she runs towards the gates, he nonchalantly grabs his pistol and shoots her in the back of the head.
- Infant Immortality: Subverted horribly. A Hungarian-Jewish girl survives the gas chamber in an extraordinary stroke of luck by being pushed into an air pocket, while all the adults piled up around her died due to breathing in the gas. She is saved by the Jewish Sonderkommandos and Dr. Nyiszli tries to bargain for her survival with Oberscharfuehrer Mussfeld. At the end it actually seems for a moment that she's going to make it after all even after the uprising is crushed, only for Mussfeld to shoot her at the last second and ordering her body to be burned with the others.
- Industrialized Evil: Anytime part of the extermination process is shown, the humming and rumbling of machinery is heard.
- Interrupted Suicide: In the opening an old man (who had to burn his own family on his first day) tries to kill himself by swallowing pills. Hoffman calls in the Doctor to save the man, but the others restrain him while they smother the man with a pillow to put him out of his misery.
- I Will Punish Your Friend for Your Failure: The Nazis resort to interrogating a female prisoner who smuggled in powder for the upcoming uprising of the Sonderkommandos by lining up all the other prisoners and shooting the women one by one unless she talks. He threatens to clean the entire block out and move on to the next one until she cooperates, but she kills herself by running into the electrified fence when they prepare to shoot a teenage girl.
- Karmic Death: A random SS guard in the crematoria is killed by the Sonderkommando by shoving him into the ovens which the Nazis used to dispose of the Jewish corpses.
- Kill 'em All: Only the Nazis and the Jewish Dr. Nyiszli survive the events of the uprising.
- La Résistance: The Sonderkommandos are planning an uprising from within the Crematoria to destroy the largest furnaces and reduce the death camp's killing potential.
- Les Collaborateurs: Subverted by the Sonderkommando.
- Murder by Cremation: Happens to a Nazi guard when the Twelth Sonderkommando group launches an uprising in Auschwitz.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Out of frustration, Hoffman beats a new arrival to death in front of the gas chambers to get his expensive watch. The beating is prolongued, realistically brutal, and graphic. Afterwards, a smug SS guard takes the match and mockingly gives it to Hoffman.
- No Name Given: The Jewish girl who survived the gas chambers is never named, because she's too traumatized to speak.
- No One Should Survive That: A young girl just barely survived the gas chamber because she was pushed into a small pocket of wet air which somewhat protected her from the Zyklon B.
- Posthumous Narration: The girl gives a particularly haunting one at the end.
Girl: After the revolt half the ovens remain, and we are carried to them together. I catch fire quickly. The first part of me rises in dense smoke, that mingles with the smoke of others. Then there then are the bones, which settle in ash, and these are swept up to be carried to the river. And last, bits of our dust, that simply float there in air, around the working of the new group. These bits of dust are grey. We settle on their shoes, and on their faces, and in their lungs. And they become so used to us that soon they don't cough, and they don't brush us away. At this point they're just moving, breathing and moving, like anyone else still alive in that place. And this is how the work... continues.
- P.O.V. Cam: At the end, the camera briefly switches to the point of view of the Jewish girl after the uprising has been quelled by the Nazis. The little girl sees quiet, tall men in uniform all around her. The camera continues to follow her as she runs through the gates to freedom until she's shot to death.
- Scream Discretion Shot: The collective screaming that Hoffman hears coming from the gas chamber after the door is locked, and an earlier scene where Simon listens to the screams of a nightly group.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The Sonderkommando rescue the Jewish girl who survived the gas chambers from the piles of corpses in the hopes of saving her so she'll be able to tell their story. Dr. Nyiszli almost manages to strike a deal for the girl's life with the Nazi officer in charge of the section, but it all ends up being for nought. Even at the end it briefly seems like the girl will run away to freedom, then the officer calmly shoots her in the back of the head and orders her body to be burned with the others.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: An orchestra made up of prisoners play Strauss while people are walking into the crematorium.
- Suicide by Cop: One of the female prisoners commits suicide by using a guard's machine gun on herself.
- That Liar Lies: Not everybody believes the Sonderkommandos' assurances that it's just a shower. The man who questions their honesty ends up getting beaten to death as a result.
- Translation Convention: The characters are understood to be speaking either German or Hungarian, but all the dialogue is in English (although the Germans get thick accents). At one point Oberscharfuehrer Mussfeld becomes angry that the prisoners start speaking Hungarian to each other to hide something from him while all the actors are in fact speaking the same language.
- Truth in Television: See here.
- Violence Is Disturbing: Per the subject matter, the movie makes no attempt to glamorize the violence that occurs. A Sonderkommando beating a Jewish man to death over an argument is shocking, and every time a character is shot to death, it's sudden and disturbing.
- Vorpal Pillow: In the opening, the Sonderkommandos smother one of their own with a pillow as a mercy kill.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The film ends with screencaps noting the success of the uprising, Oberscharführer Mussfeld being convicted and hanged for war crimes, and Dr. Nyiszli surviving the war, but not practicing medicine ever again.