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Film / The Grey Zone

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"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. Josef 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.

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson, the film stars David Arquette, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, and Mira Sorvino.

This film contains examples of:

  • Bittersweet Ending: Two of the crematoria are destroyed in the uprising, but all the Sonderkommando and the girl they tried to save are executed.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The Nazis are unquestionably and unambiguously evil, and while the Sonderkommando are working to rebel, they are forced to go to inhuman and despicable measures to earn the extremely temporary right to survive.
  • Casting Gag: Harvey Keitel, a Jewish actor, plays an SS officer at Auschwitz who's directly involved with murdering Jews and expresses unapologetic antisemitism.
  • 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.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Subverted by the Sonderkommando. They're forced to cooperate with the Nazis under penalty of death, and are perfectly aware that they have nothing to gain from it long-term.
  • Courier: Hesch, who relays messages about when to move between the Hungarians of Crematorium IV and the Poles of Crematorium II. Since the guards have started isolating the units, he has to bribe the ones on duty.
  • 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.
  • Cruel Mercy: At the end, Oberscharführer Muhsfeldt spares Doctor Nyiszli's life, despite not needing to and after the Doctor previously tried to blackmail him. It's implied that Muhsfeldt wants the doctor to suffer more by continuing to be forced to engage in human experiments, stating that they both still have work to do.
  • Curb Stomp Cushion: The prisoners are completely outgunned by the German soldiers, but still manage to hold their own until the crematorium is blown up.
  • Darker and Edgier: The Grey Zone is Darker and Edgier... for a Holocaust film. While films about the topic all depict the unimaginable human suffering of that period, most (such as Schindler's List, The Pianist, or Escape from Sobibór) also try to portray a narrative of courage and hope amidst all that horror, with at least some characters managing to survive against all odds. This film takes place entirely in Auschwitz, focusing on the prisoners who were forced to assist the Nazis by disposing of the bodies, making the protagonists much more morally ambiguous than is typical. It ends with almost every character of note dying, and most of their efforts throughout the film either resulting in a rather minor victory (half the crematoria remain after the uprising, and the death industry continues) or simply rendered pointless (the little girl they tried to save, who's killed by Oberscharführer Muhsfeldt after a Hope Spot).
  • Death of a Child: 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 Oberscharführer Muhsfeldt. 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 Muhsfeldt to shoot her at the last second and ordering her body to be burned with the others.
  • 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.
  • Drone of Dread: The rumble of the ovens is ever-present.
  • Euphemism Buster: Muhsfeldt tells the Sonderkommando of Crematorium IV that the guards are planning on "moving" them soon to give them a "reprieve". Everyone involved knows what that really means. Rosenthal says that they would much rather continue their work. Muhsfeldt says it's not up to him—the decision has already been made by the camp directorate.
    Rosenthal: Why kill us now? We're the best kommando you've had.
    SS-Oberscharfuhrer Eric Muhsfeldt: Did I say kill?
    Rosenthal: We both know what we're saying.
    SS-Oberscharfuhrer Eric Muhsfeldt: So I'm a liar.
    Rosenthal: You are what you are.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Oberscharführer Muhsfeldt is a twisted example. He is obviously disturbed by what he considers his duty in Auschwitz—it even drives him to drink—and he seems disgusted by the Jews who work as Sonderkommando, seeing them as traitors to their own people. Of course, he's overlooking the fact that he is one of the people putting the Jews in this situation in the first place.
  • Faux Affably Evil
    • Oberscharführer Muhsfeldt will have reasonably polite conversations with Dr. Nyiszli to compel him to become The Mole for him. At the same time, he's a monstrous 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.
  • Fisticuff-Provoking Comment: Hoffman tries to get an expensive watch off a middle-aged Jewish man. The man refuses and struggles, perfectly aware that he's being sent to his death, but what really sets off Hoffman on his No-Holds-Barred Beatdown is when the unnamed man calls him a Nazi. Hoffman is a Sonderkommando who is forced to work in the crematoria under threat of death and knows he is on borrowed time anyway. It's inconceivable for the Nazis to include a Jew into their ranks.
  • Forced into Evil: The Sonderkommandos are Jewish prisoners in the death camps who assisted the extermination process by marching the new victims into the gas chambers and then disposing of the corpses. The only reason they're doing this is because the Nazis literally forced them to at gunpoint, and eliminate the Sonderkommandos themselves at regular intervals. After what the characters have done and seen, most of them simply don't want to live anymore.
  • 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.
  • Germanic Efficiency: Hesch bemoans the Germans' efficiency, even when it comes to killing.
    Hesch: For pete's sake, they will stand up corpses in the snow to get the proper count!
  • 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.
  • Hero of Another Story: The film follows the Hungarian Sonderkommando of Crematorium IV. The Polish inmates at Crematorium II are also a presence, and planning to escape after their sabotage, but remain almost entirely off-screen throughout the film.
  • 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. Her friend shoots herself after grabbing a guard's gun to do the same thing after this.
  • Historical Ugliness Update: Josef Mengele is portrayed as a balding middle-aged man. In real life, he was quite good-looking and he would've been in his early thirties at the time this movie takes place. His nickname "The Angel of Death" was a direct reference to his inner morality clashing with his outward appearance. This makes it difficult even for history buffs to identify him, since he only appears in person once and isn't addressed by name (and no, Mengele wasn't the only Mad Doctor in Auschwitz). He isn't identified until Muhsfeldt makes a passing reference to Mengele much later.
  • 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.
  • Identical Stranger: Implied Trope. Never discussed, because she obviously wasn't a celebrity during her life, only posthumously, but the Hungarian jewish girl who survived the gas chambers actually resembles Anne Frank quite a bit.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Oberscharführer Muhsfeldt drinks excessively to deal with the horrors he oversees at Auschwitz. He denies it, claiming that he doesn't have any problems with killing the Jews and that all of his problems stem from his alcoholism, which he says is unrelated to his work. This extends to most of the camp's inhabitants, prisoners and guards alike, due to the unrelenting horror of their situation.
  • 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. The SS interrogator 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. Then her friend shoots herself with a guard's gun to do the same.
  • 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.
  • Murder by Cremation: Happens to a Nazi guard when the Twelfth Sonderkommando group launches an uprising in Auschwitz.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Hoffman after beating the old man to death, which leads to the man's wife being shot when she screams.
  • 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 watch 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.
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: Very little music is used, bar the band that play as the prisoners are marched in and the record a guard is listening to. Instead, the background noise is mostly the sound of the crematories, to terrifying effect.
  • 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. Poles in the countryside smuggled the gunpowder needed be the rebels into the camp.
  • 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 naught. 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 Attack: Many of the Sonderkommando blow themselves up detonating the explosive to destroy the crematorium, and they are fine with that. Most wanted to die as a result of being broken by their work.
  • Suicide by Cop: One of the female prisoners commits suicide by using a guard's machine gun on herself.
  • Taking a Third Option: Dina and Rosa are Forced to Watch their terrified barracks mates shot one by one while having the names of their coconspirators demanded. Instead one manages to get herself shot while the other grabs the electric fence, stopping the hostage killings, while keeping the Germans from getting the names.
  • Taking You with Me: Oberscharfuehrer Muhsfeld expresses this attitude about the genocide he's a part of after shooting Hesch, fully cognizant of the fact that the war is going to end badly for the Nazis.
    Muhsfeld: That is how it will go for all of us. First you, then us. The last thing to do is smile. We will dispose of as many of you as we can before they do the same to us. Your bombers only speed it all up!
  • 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 Oberscharführer Muhsfeldt 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.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The different factions among the prisoners don't like each other very much and their plans often conflict with each other. However, they are united in their overall goal of undermining their Nazi captors.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The Poles in Crematorium II are planning to escape to stay alive and spread the story, and in a deleted scene several are indeed shown cutting through the wire. Their final fate isn't revealed in the film, although according to real-life records most to all of the sonderkommando who made it out of the camp that day were quickly found and shot by a search party.
  • What You Are in the Dark: As the gas chamber is being cleared, Hoffman finds a young girl who somehow managed to survive. He takes her to be treated by the doctor, in spite of the fact that doing so will likely end in both of them being killed on the spot.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The film ends with screencaps noting the success of the uprising, Oberscharführer Muhsfeldt being convicted and hanged for war crimes, and Dr. Nyiszli surviving the war, but not practicing medicine ever again.
  • Would Hit a Girl: The Nazis have no problems with killing and torturing female prisoners.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Countless children are gassed, and Muhsfeldt shoots the unnamed Jewish girl.