The Grey Zone (2001)




Director:  Tim Blake Nelson.

Starring:   David Arquette (Hoffman), Velizar Binev (Moll), David Chandler (Rosenthal), Michael Stuhlbarg (Cohen), George Zlatarev (Lowy), Dimitar Ivanov (Old Man), Daniel Benzali (Schlermer), Allan Corduner (Doctor Miklos Nyiszli), Steve Buscemi ('Hesch' Abramowics),  Harvey Keitel (SS-Oberscharfuhrer Eric Muhsfeldt), Henry Stram (SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Josef Mengele), Kamelia Grigorova (Girl), Lisa Benavides (Anja), Shirly Brener (Inmate), Mira Sorvino (Dina).

 revolt of the Jews who fed the Holocaust ovens at Auschwitz II - Birkenau. 



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

In the concentration camps there were special units called Sonderkommando.  These units aided in the extermination process.  They ushered victims into the gas chambers and processed the corpses.  For this they received special privileges.  They were exterminated after four months of service.  Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew, was an eyewitness to the events in this movie.  He worked under Dr. Josef Mengele to assist in medical experiments on camp inmates.  The focus in the movie is on the 12th, largely Hungarian, Sonderkommando at Auschwitz II - Birkenau. 

1944, #1 crematorium.  Dr. Nyiszli is called to resuscitate one of the old men of the Sonderkommando.  When he arrives Max tries to stop the doctor from resuscitating the man, but the doctor insists and is able to resuscitate him.  Then Max places one of the pillows over the face of the old man and pushes down until the man is dead.  Max tells the doctor that the dead man wanted it this way.  The doctor is angry and tells Max:  "Don't call  for me again."

Hoffman of the #1 crematorium speaks with Hesch from the #3 crematorium.  The Hungarians of #1 crematorium do not trust the mostly Poles of #3 crematorium with the decision of when to start a rebellion against their Nazi overlords.  

The doctor speaks with his superior Dr. Mengele who tells him that they are going to increase the volume of the research on camp inmates.  The doctor says he will need more staff.  Mengele gives him a pass to go anywhere in the camp. 

The Union Munitions Factory Brzezinka.  The Women's Munitions Kommando.  Certain of the women, including Tsipora and Dina, are working to collect powder to send to the crematoria. 

Herr SS-Oberschaarfuhrer Eric Muhsfeldt tells the doctor that there is a rumor about a rebellion at the #3 crematorium.  The doctors says he does not know anything about it, because the other Jews do not trust him.  The doctor treats Muhsfeldt for migraine headaches. 

A prisoner orchestra plays music as Jews file into the gassing chamber of the crematorium.  Hesch pays another visit to #1 crematorium.  At the fence, the Partisans have left machine guns and grenades for the camp inmates.  Hesch speaks about rebellion in connection with escape.  This makes Max very angry.  He says that if the emphasis is going to be on escape, "we're out".  He knows that they are all going to die, no matter what they do, so Max insists that the goal is to destroy the crematoria to damage the Holocaust machine.   And the decision to rebel has to be made soon, because Muhsfeldt told Max "that they are ready to move us."

A group of inmates are made to kneel facing an outside wall.  They are then shot one by one in the head with a pistol.  In the gassing chamber the superkommandos lie to those who are going to be gassed.  They tell the people to hurry up and get undressed because the sooner they get the de-lousing over with the sooner they will be reunited with their families.  One man insists that Hoffman tell the people the truth and shouts to the other victims that he is lying.  Hoffman asks him to be quiet and then insists that he be quiet, but the man will just not be quiet.  Feeling that his position is being compromised, Hoffman beats the man to death while his wife screams and screams.  An SS-man shoots the wife in the head.  The others go into the gassing chamber and the door is closed behind them.  Soon the screaming and the banging on the door begin. 

Muhsfelt speaks with the doctor again.  He tells the doctor that his wife and daughter in C camp are set to be liquidated in about two weeks.  Muhsfelt offers the doctor help with this problem in return for the doctor telling him whenever he hears when the rebellion is going to take place.  The doctor insists that no one talks to him about these things, but Muhsfelt persists.  So the doctor agrees.  Muhsfelt tells the doctor to have his wife and daughter volunteer for work elsewhere and he will do the rest.

The two women collecting the powder are interrogated and tortured.  They want to know how they got the powder from the plant, but more importantly where was the powder headed.   

At the gassing chamber, Hoffman discovers that one little girl has survived the gassing.  He tells Max and after some objections Max agrees to help Hoffman save the girl.  They take her to the doctor and he gives her a number of injections that revives her.  One of the superkommandos tells those who saved the girl to kill her, because they are all going to be caught and killed.  But no one listens to the man's objections. 

The doctor tells Muhsfelt that there is going to be an uprising.  But Muhsfelt wants to know when, not if.  He is a bit disgusted with the doctor.  Hesch comes over to #1 crematorium again, but this time Muhsfelt talks with the superkommandos.  He suddenly recognizes Hesch and asks him what he is doing away from his crematorium.  Hesch denies that he is from #3 crematorium, but Muhsfelt knows him.  As Hesch tries to cover himself, Muhsfelt shoots him dead with his pistol.  Muhsfelt then discovers the girl survivor.  The doctor tries to distract Muhsfelt by telling him that he has the information that he wanted.  When he gets him to a private room he tells Muhsfelt that if he does anything to the girl, he will tell Mengele that he is unfit because of his numerous migraines.  Muhsfelt is not too worried, but the agrees to spare the girl if the doctor gets him the information about when the rebellion will take place. 

The two women who were tortured do not talk.  So the Nazis try another technique.  They force the women in the barracks outside.  They are lined up.  The officer in charge says he will shoot every woman from the barracks one by one unless the two women tell him where the powder was headed.  They don't talk, so the killing begins.  This is a new kind of torture and the two tortured women become hysterical with concern and worry.  Finally, one throws herself against the barbed wire electrocuting herself to death.  The other woman forces her stomach area up against an automatic weapon of one of the Germans and she is killed when the weapon is fired. 

October 7, 1944 about 3 p.m.  Hoffman is sent to #3 crematorium to tell them what happened to Hesch.  A fire begins in #3 crematorium, the sign that the rebellion has started.  The men in #1 crematorium ignite the powder and blow up a part of the crematorium.  Some German soldiers are killed by the inmates with the weapons they received from the Partisans.  The Germans put down the rebellion.  They make the men of #1 crematorium lie face down on the ground and they shoot every man one by one in the back.  They make the little girl inmate watch as this task is performed.  She breaks away and starts to run.  Muhsfelt stops her with a bullet in her back. 

Dr. Miklos Nyiszli survived the concentration camp.  He died ten years following his release.  His wife died in the late 1970s.  His daughter's whereabouts are unknown.  In 1947 Eric Muhsfeldt was tried in Cracow by the Supreme National Tribunal and was put to death.

Of the 13 superkommando units, only the 12th rebelled.  They destroyed nearly half the ovens of the Third Reich's largest and numerically most lethal death camp.  The ovens were never rebuilt. 


Good movie.  It focuses on one of the units of Jewish inmates of the concentration camps who ran the gassing and crematoria for the annihilation of their fellow Jews.  There are a lot of Nazi atrocities shown.  They were so cruel in so many ways, there are thousands of different ways to illustrate their monstrousness.  It's good to emphasize the cruelty of the Nazis, but it would have been even more interesting if they had given us a little more insight into the psychological nightmares the "collaborators" must have gone through.   But one movie can't cover it all.  An important emphasis is the rebellion against the killing machine for in this one concentration the twelfth unit was the only one out of 13 units to rebel.   

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


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