This is one of the most heart-wrenching films I’ve seen in a while. While other films such as Come and See and Schindler’s List deal in similar terrain, The Grey Zone is one of the best films about the holocaust. I agree with Ebert when he refers to Tim Blake Nelson as someone who would be more recognized as a great contemporary filmmaker if not for the fact that he is known more for his acting career.
- Director: Tim Blake Nelson
- Writer: Tim Blake Nelson
- Cast: David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, Allan Corduner, Daniel Benzali
The Grey Zone takes place within the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. The story focuses on a group of prisoners chosen by Germans guards to escort other prisoners into gas chambers and then dump bodies into ovens. The heart of this film comes from the portrayal of men who decide to take a stand even when the effort may be futile.
The Grey Zone is perhaps especially accessible to American audiences in that it refers to characters speaking either German or Hungarian when they are speaking English onscreen. This was an interesting choice by Tim Blake Nelson, and though it seemed as though it would bother me, it blended into the background in an otherwise masterful film. Without dragging too long when showing violence, and without over-sentimentalizing the subject matter with music and long takes, Nelson’s film carries out an impeccable pace and a tone that feels grounded in reality. There is no happy ending here, only an inspiring — albeit relatively insignificant — choice made by a few prisoners. At times, executions are shot from a distance, giving us the feeling of a witness. There are several scenes where hopeless attempts to escape froze me in place. The production design feels so authentic that you almost forget you’re watching a film while imagining how horrendous it would have been to experience such a degraded state of humanity. Nelson even plays with narrative, using the unlikely voice-over of a dead person to provide us with unique insight into life at the camp.
Beyond the technical achievements, the acting is first rate across the board. Most notably, I was shocked by how convincing David Arquette is in a dramatic film. In fact, though it may not be saying much, I think this is his best role ever. The inner conflict that his character undergoes is emotionally honest, creating a sense of pride in his courage. At the end of the film, his uttering of words “we did something” is one of the most deeply resonating lines of dialogue in recent memory. In another particularly moving scene, Arquette’s character recounts an old man’s gripping experience at the camp. When speaking of the acting in this film, it is impossible not to mention the flawless portrayal of the following characters: Hesch (Steve Buscemi), Eric Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel), Dina (Mira Sorvino), Schelmer (Daniel Benzali), Dr. Miklos Nyiszli (Allan Corduner). Keitel especially is highly effective as a guard horrifically loyal to orders, while Buscemi and Sorvino also stand out in their ability to convey the fears and feelings of their character’s conditions.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Ebert’s review begins by opening a gripping discussion about what he would do if forced to face an impending death at the hand of a “malevolent human machine”. The film focuses on Jewish prisoners that were selected to do much of the cruel physical work in turn for a some perks and a few extra months to live. At that point in history, prisoners had reason to believe that Russians were close to liberating the camps. Ebert raises a thought-provoking discussion about whether it would have been morally wrong to accept the role of Jewish workers in an effort to survive. There are additional moral questions posed by Ebert within his review, making it an amazing supplemental document to go with the film.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like The Grey Zone? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: My Dinner with Andre
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone this week, he now has 328 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.