The Grey Zone

Based in part on the published memoir of Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian doctor who survived eight months in Auschwitz, Tim Blake Nelson's adaptation of his own stage play is a harrowing, thoroughly uncompromising tour of hell. Upon his arrival at the camp, Nyiszli was spared immediate death and sent to work as a pathologist for the infamous Nazi doctor Josef...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Based in part on the published memoir of Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian doctor who survived eight months in Auschwitz, Tim Blake Nelson's adaptation of his own stage play is a harrowing, thoroughly uncompromising tour of hell. Upon his arrival at the camp, Nyiszli was spared immediate death and sent to work as a pathologist for the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, performing autopsies and dissections in the name of "research." But Nyiszli was also physician to the Sonderkommando, a squad of Jewish prisoners who were temporarily spared extermination, but condemned to a grimmer fate. It was their job to usher their fellow Jews and other camp inmates into the gas chambers, then "process" their corpses, which usually meant loading them into the blazing ovens of the crematoriums. In exchange for their services, members of the "kommando of the living dead" were allowed to live marginally better lives than other prisoners, until they too were liquidated and replaced by a fresh team. Nelson's film explores the excruciating moral choices these Jewish prisoners made by focusing on the extraordinary true story of Auschwitz's twelfth Sonderkommando, which made the most of their little remaining time by attempting to blow up the crematoriums. What's most startling about the film is its utter unwillingness to see Auschwitz as anything other that what it was: A highly efficient death machine that murdered thousands each day. As the conspiracy to destroy the crematoriums — and a subplot involving a group of Jews (including David Arquette and Steve Buscemi) who attempt to save a young girl (Kamelia Grigorova) who miraculously survived the gas chamber — unfolds, the film takes the viewer through what must be the most explicit portrayal of the extermination process ever to appear in a feature film. Nelson even shows the Sonderkommando pulling gold-filled teeth from the mouths of naked corpses, and cutting the hair from their heads. It's nearly impossible not to turn away, but the film's graphic nature raises important questions about how we are to depict the Holocaust on film: Either you show nothing — Claude Lanzmann's highly effective strategy in SHOAH — or you try to show it all, as Nelson does. The result is an extremely difficult but worthy film, whose true horror lies in the certain knowledge that however brutal it may seem, the reality of Auschwitz was far worse.

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  • Released: 2002
  • Rating: R
  • Review: Based in part on the published memoir of Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian doctor who survived eight months in Auschwitz, Tim Blake Nelson's adaptation of his own stage play is a harrowing, thoroughly uncompromising tour of hell. Upon his arrival at the camp, Ny… (more)

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