The Grey Zone – Yom HaShoah 2024

Allan Corduner and Kamelia Grigorova in The Grey Zone. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Tim Blake Nelson adapted his play of the same name, The Grey Zone, from Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Dr. Miklós Nyiszli.

Let’s be honest. Tim Blake Nelson is not the first person you would think of to write and direct a Holocaust movie. How many of you even knew that one of his parents survived the worst genocide of Jews in history? He certainly puts in the work in adapting the book and subsequent play for the screen. I only wish I could have watched The Grey Zone prior to meeting its filmmaker in 2022 so that I could tip my cap for his work on the film. The film, much like the rebellion it depicts, seems largely forgotten in history.

The film  had the unfortunate luck of holding its world premiere after the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Premiering a film set during the Holocaust probably wasn’t ideal at this point but it is what it is. In any event, it would take over a year before the film saw a limited release in October 2002. As much as I followed film fests during this time, the film was still one that fell under my radar. Regardless, I’m finally watched it just before the observance of Yom HaShoah this year. I made plans to watch the film at some point after glancing through Rich Brownstein’s 2021 book, Holocaust Cinema Complete, and learning Tim Blake Nelson was Jewish. It was just a matter of whether it would be on Tisha B’Av, Yom HaShoah, or International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

What you need to know abut The Grey Zone is that the Nazis employed Sommerkommandos at their death camps. Select Jewish men had the unfortunate luck of having to usher victims into the gas chambers. Even worse, they would have to process the corpses. I do not envy any Jew in this terrible situation. They either work in the camps or die in them. Not an easy choice. The Nazis gave them special privileges but only for a short time. At some point, the Nazis would murder them and move onto the next team of Jews to do their grunt work. Dr. Josef Mengele had assigned a Hungarian Jew, Dr. Miklós Nyiszli (Allan Corduner), to assist in medical experiments at the camps. The film is based on his book, which describes his experiences with the twelfth Sommerkommando of Auschwitz II – Birkenau in the fall of 1944.

Even as the camp inmates have their assignments, they have plans of their own. They are aiming to destroy one of four crematoria and gas chambers. Two of four would ultimately be destroyed. Meanwhile, there’s some smuggling from nearby Polish citizens or the women’s camp. Unfortunately, the Nazis soon discover women are helping and torture them. Anyway, Dr. Nyiszli is in a unique position and also uses his standing–if you can call it that–to check on his wife and daughter in the labor camp. He thinks he might be able to save them. Meanwhile, a new trainload of Hungarian Jews arrives and one of them starts shouting at Hoffman (David Arquette). Unfortunately, Hoffman beats the man up to the point in which he ends up dying.

Where things get really interesting they discover a girl (Kamelia Grigorova) under a pile of bodies in the gas chambers. She is surprisingly still alive. One thing leads to another and they end up hiding her at a children’s camp. It isn’t for long as the planned uprising is just about over almost as soon as it begins, thanks to SS-Oberscharführer Eric Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel). The girl gets an opportunity to run for her life and flee but alas, Musfeldt murders her.

All in all, this film is different from many other Holocaust movies. It doesn’t play to some of the typical tropes. You certainly will not find a fancy awards-worthy score. There’s no happy ending as many of the main players are dead by the end. I give Nelson credit: for every part of the train to death process, he does not show Jews as they are gassed to death. It’s already a tough watch and adding that would probably make it even tougher, if not unwatchable. While it does center on Jewish inmates, none of them are in an enviable position. These Jews are receiving better treatment than most but only because they are doing what the Nazis will not: dispose dead bodies. And yet, the run time is just shy of two hours. It could easily be north of the two hour mark. Easily.

One thing to note is that the Nazis did not rebuild any of the ovens following their destruction. The twelfth unit’s rebellion is responsible for half of the ovens being destroyed. BH! If not for this, who knows just how many more Jews could have been killed. After all, we’re talking about the largest and deadliest death camp.

Despite Tim Blake Nelson writing/directing and a number of big names starring in the film, the film did very little at the box office. I wonder how much of this is because of the American mood in a post 9/11 world. The film barely made over $500,000 in nine weeks of release. Its highest theatrical count was 36, coming in week 5. Thanks to digital retailers and streaming, the film is able to find an audience, maybe. I watched it through Prime Video and it’s worth a viewing. It is not an easy watch but that’s par for the course with Holocaust movies. And again, if not for Brownstein’s book, I would have not watched the film, let alone ever hear of it. Brownstein referred to it as “the greatest Holocaust film ever made” in a 2021 piece for JTA.

The Grey Zone may be a forgotten film but it is essential viewing as far as Holocaust movies are concerned. There’s a universe where this is a DreamWorks movie rather than Lionsgate. If Steven Spielberg had his way, maybe it would be better remembered and I wouldn’t have been over twenty years late in watching.

CAST: David Arquette, Daniel Benzali, Steve Buscemi, David Chandler, Allan Corduner, Harvey Keitel, Natasha Lyonne, Mira Sorvino, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lisa Benavides, Brian O’Bryne, Henry Stram, Lee Wilkof, Jessica Hecht, and introducing Kamelia Grigorova

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions released The Grey Zone in theaters on October 18, 2002. Grade: 4.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.