Friday, 10 July 2015
The Grey Zone (4 Stars)
Of all the films I've seen dealing with the Holocaust, this is possibly the most disturbing. The usual way to portray the concentration camps is that the evil Germans killed the good Jews. It's all so simple, so black and white. This film tells another story, about the Jews who fought to survive by siding with the Germans against their fellow Jews and were rewarded for their efforts.
The film, previously a play, is based on the memoirs of the Hungarian Jew Dr. Miklos Nyiszli. Because of his skills as a surgeon he was appointed as Josef Mengele's personal assistant, carrying out autopsies on dead twins. He was a VIP in the Auschwitz camp, enjoying better privileges than most of the German officers.
There are other levels of Jews who served the Germans. There were the musicians playing cheerful music to greet new arrivals in the camp. The most bizarre group was the Sonderkommando, the special unit, the Jews who administered the gas chambers, escorting other Jews into the showers and carrying the bodies out afterwards. In the evenings they sat eating opulent meals with the best wines.
The film also tells the story of an uprising, in which gunpowder was smuggled into the camp to blow up one of the four crematoriums. That's the film's positive story, of Jewish resistance against the Nazis, but it's not the main theme of the film, it takes a sideline to the cruelty of Jews against Jews.
The outstanding actor in the film is David Arquette, who plays Hoffman, the Sonderkommando member struggling to redeem himself after beating another Jew to death. This is the most overwhelming performance of his career. Steve Buscemi is noteworthy as the camp's slippery black market trader, amassing wealth for himself for the day when he's freed from the camp. Harvey Keitel, one of my favourite actors, is less convincing as the German officer Erich Muhsfeldt. He doesn't seem to be evil enough for the role of a mass murderer. Or maybe that's the way he should have been portrayed. I've never met any mass murderers, so how can I know what they're like?