«Jewish Observer»
November 2002
5763 Kislev

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Primo Levi wrote in his memoirs about Auschwitz that the time came to study "the space that separated victims from their persecutors". This space, according to him, was home to "low and piteous people we should write about if we want to widen our knowledge about a human nature".

The essay to contain these words is named "Grey zone". It described members of "special units" or Zondercommandos. Tim Blake Nelson has created the most true-to-life film on Holocaust we have ever seen - "Grey zone". Tim calls himself "Jew from Tulsa (state of Oklahoma), representative of "the nation from Bible" using a country accent.

In mid 90's Nelson unexpectedly discovered Primo Levi's essay... Prior to the cremation prisoners-Jews from Zondercommando undressed the dead, took away jewellery, hair and even teeth for the death-dealing machine to function most efficiently. Those refusing to fulfill such duties were killed on the spot and many would choose suicide. Many of those who aided hangmen did not survive even 4 months and committed suicide. In exchange for assistance in killing their Jewish comrades the "workers" of Zondercommando were subject for privileges: more spacious cells, decent meals, books, cigarettes, alcohol and even the right to appropriate meagre belongings of the burnt Jews.

"Should the similar had occurred in my life, - says Nelson, - I don't know what I would have done. This question haunts me. I grew up visiting a synagogue and Jewish school but I have never heard of Zondercommando".

Rebellion of Zondercommando (it resulted in destroying one crematorium and damaging the other) occurred in October 1944. The rebels were armed with stones, axes, hammers, self-made grenades and pistols partisans had handed over to the crematorium. Consulting Levi, Nelson read a book of memoirs by Miklos Niyzhli, a Hungarian Jew who was an assistant of a notorious doctor Mengele, author of medical experiments on the prisoners in Auschwitz.

Unrest began when a girl was found miraculously alive under a heap of corpses in the gas chamber. Zondercommando tried to save her. Four film heroes have real protagonists and invented characters appeared after Nelson had studied diaries of Zondercommando members found in Birkenau. Judging by diaries, they differed from Jews usually depicted in works on the Holocaust.

Nelson singles out the fact the death camp was gradually filled with hatred among Jews themselves: "Zondercommando showed off all shameful qualities of a man, "best" of which are suspicion, xenophobia and hatred towards oneself". By its style the film obviously defies more traditional - and suitable - emotional moments of such films as "List of Shindler" and "Life is wonderful". The one to triumph here is the dark side of human spirit in the form of relentless desire of a Zondercommando to survive at the expense of his brothers - Jews. There is no music: action is accompanied by sounds of working chambers, shots and continuous demolishing work of death. The actors playing a group of Hungarian Jews speak with monotonous, sharp and, at times, rude modulations. "They have no Jewish accent which always confused me in films about Holocaust", - says the director.

As a result, the film has become the most obvious depiction of Auschwitz in cinema (they say Spielberg called "List of Shindler" a "children's film" in comparison with "Grey Zone"). The script by Tim Nelson and participation of the actor Harvi Keitel attracted cinema stars: David Arkette, Steve Bushemy, Allan Kordaner and others.

In the first shots Arkette carries corpses into the crematorium, "... I once was to lift a wife of one old man. I descended into the gas chamber and when I saw that woman, she seemed to be my mother. This almost rendered me inoperative but made feel I was fated to find myself namely here".

The film "Grey zone" overthrows all traditions but, alongside, follows them to the extent to be a true cinema.


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