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Film: The Grey Zone

''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"
Hoffman talking to the girl

The Grey Zone 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:

  • Affably Evil Dr. Mengele, Oberscharführer Mussfeld.
  • 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, and chooses to die in the explosion which destroys the crematoria.
  • Gas Chamber
  • 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: Dina 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 back of the head.
  • Heroic BSOD
  • 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
  • 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.
  • Kill 'em All: Only the Nazis and the Jewish Dr. Nyiszli survive the events of the uprising.
  • La Résistance
  • 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
  • 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.
  • Scream Discretion Shot: The collective screaming from the gas chamber after the door is locked.
  • 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.
  • That Liar Lies: Not everybody believes 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
  • "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.


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alternative title(s): The Grey Zone
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