A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Rare among films about the Holocaust, Tim Blake Nelson's "The Grey Zone" (2001) lacks an upbeat ending. Even a great film like Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" works largely because in a universe of horror, the director found a narrative of courage and hope. One Holocaust film after another does the same thing: finds a story that doesn't end with everyone dead, so that we can somehow be reassured that life carries on. But such stories deny the central fact that the overwhelming mass of Holocaust victims disappeared into the maw of evil.
I sometimes ask myself what I would do if I were faced with an inescapable death. I know I will die someday; that is in the nature of things. But to be plucked from life and exterminated by a malevolent human machine is not natural. In a death camp, would I passively await the end? Would I seek accommodation for myself? Would I work to resist, however hopelessly?
"The Grey Zone" begins with the fact that the Nazis employed groups of Jewish prisoners to do much of the hard physical work of extermination. They led victims into gas chambers, fed their bodies into incinerators, shoveled up their ashes and disposed of them. For this work, they were paid with privileges: food, tobacco, wine and medicines plundered from the dead, and above all, perhaps a few more months of life.
It was rumored that Russian soldiers were a few months from reaching the camps and liberating them. If I could save my life by bargaining for those months, would that be wrong? It would be the wrong choice from a standpoint of objective morality; I should not collaborate in murder. Yet as I await a certain fate in despair, can I be blamed for attempting a bargain with destiny?