Drink a Shot: any time you find yourself feeling Ill
Drink a Shot: for Harvey Keitel’s German accent
Pretty Much Just Drink: heavily throughout this movie… you’ll need it
By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Two Beers) –
In the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration camp during World War II, a group of prisoners work in a special unit called the “Sonderkommando”. Their job is to, under the threat of death, help aid the camp guards in carrying out mass executions. The Sonderkommando’s job is to guide those who are chosen to die to the gas chambers, keep them calm until the job is done, and then to process the bodies in the crematorium. In return for carrying out this work, the men of the Sonderkommando units are given small liberties denied to all other prisoners. However, their time is limited; they are themselves executed within 3 to 4 months of starting their work.
The Grey Zone is the true story of a group of Sonderkommando who in 1944 revolted against camp guards, and managed to do significant damage to the crematoriums, slowing the NAZI’s efforts at the final solution.
Whereas many Holocaust dramas strive for a degree of optimism about the future, The Grey Zone stays firmly entrenched in the present situation of its characters. These are not people who have a future, so far as they know, and must therefore carry on with living, almost mechanically. In their lives hope is something that died long ago, and was unceremoniously discarded. Director-writer Tim Blake Nelson gives the film this feeling of despondency which is so important in a movie that covers this material. The cruel and sad fact of the lives of these prisoners was that they were given a truly terrible choice between death and aiding the enemy. No human being should have to make this decision.
The film stars David Arquette and David Chandler as Hungarian-Jewish prisoners in the special unit, with strong supporting turns by Steve Buscemi as the organizer of the uprising, Mira Sorvino as a female Jewish factory worker who smuggles gunpowder into the camp, and Harvey Keitel as Oberscharführer Eric Muhsfeldt, a non-commissioned German officer in charge of the Sonderkommando. Arquette in particular manages a great degree of authenticity in his performance, depicting a man literally coming apart at the seams owing to their situation.
If The Grey Zone has any faults it is the rather unfortunate choice of Harvey Keitel to attempt a German accent. Nearly none of the film’s other actors do it, and for good reason; if you cannot do an accent well, it comes off comical. Keitel still manages a deeply disturbing and affecting performance in spite of this accent issue. But it would have been preferable for him to simply use his own speaking voice.
Perhaps the darkest depiction of the Holocaust in dramatic cinema, this apocalyptic vision serves as a meaningful piece of history uncompromised by Hollywood sentimentalism. If there is any message to glean from The Grey Zone, it is “Live to live, not merely to survive”.