The Grey Zone

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The Grey Zone
Theatrical release poster
Directed byTim Blake Nelson
Written byTim Blake Nelson
Based onAuschwitz: a Doctor's Eyewitness Account
by Miklós Nyiszli and
The Grey Zone
by Tim Blake Nelson[1]
Produced by
CinematographyRussell Lee Fine
Edited by
  • Michelle Botticelli
  • Tim Blake Nelson
Music byJeff Danna
Distributed byLionsgate
Roadside Attractions
Release dates
  • September 13, 2001 (2001-09-13) (TIFF)
  • October 18, 2002 (2002-10-18) (United States)
Running time
108 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$517,872[2]

The Grey Zone is a 2001 American war film, and Holocaust drama[3] written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson and starring David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, and Daniel Benzali. It is based on the book Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account written by Dr. Miklós Nyiszli.[4]

The title comes from a chapter in the book The Drowned and the Saved by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi.[5] The film tells the story of the Jewish Sonderkommando XII in the Auschwitz death camp in October 1944. These prisoners were made to assist the camp's guards in shepherding their victims to the gas chambers and then disposing of their bodies in the ovens.


The film opens in October 1944, in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. A small group of Sonderkommando, prisoners assigned to dispose of the bodies of other dead prisoners, are plotting an insurrection that, they hope, will destroy at least one of the camp's four crematoria and gas chambers. They are receiving firearms from Polish citizens in the nearby village and gunpowder from the UNIO munitions factory; the female prisoners who work in the UNIO are smuggling the powder to the men's camp amid the bodies of their dead workers. When the women's activity is eventually discovered by the Germans they are savagely tortured but they don't reveal the plot. A Hungarian-Jewish doctor, Miklós Nyiszli, who works for the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in an experimental medical lab, has received permission from Mengele to visit his wife and daughter in the women's labor camp. Nyiszli is concerned about the safety of his family and believes that Mengele's orders will keep them from the gas chambers.

A new trainload of Hungarian Jewish prisoners arrives and are sent to the gas chambers. As the group is given instructions about "delousing", a fearful, angry man in the group begins shouting questions at one of the Sonderkommandos, Hoffman, who has been issuing the instructions. Hoffman beats him to death in an outburst of frustration, to make the man stop talking. After the gassing of this group, a badly shaken Hoffman finds a young girl alive beneath a pile of bodies. He removes her from the chamber and after informing the leader of the insurgency, Schlermer, takes her to a storage room and summons Nyiszli, who revives her. The group decides to hide her in the children's camp. While the prisoners hide her in a dressing room, SS-Oberscharführer Eric Muhsfeldt suddenly walks in. Noticing that one of the prisoners present, Abramowics, is there illegally, he shoots him, prompting the girl to scream and to be discovered. Nyiszli then takes Muhsfeldt outside and tells him about the uprising but cannot tell him where or when it will begin. Muhsfeldt agrees to protect the young girl after the uprising is suppressed.

The insurrection begins and Crematorium IV is destroyed with the smuggled explosives. All the Sonderkommando prisoners who survive the explosions and gunfights with the SS are captured. They are held until the fire in the crematorium is extinguished, after which they are executed. Hoffmann and a fellow prisoner, Rosenthal, conclude that the girl will not be set free after she is forced to watch the executions. After all captives are shot, the girl is allowed to flee toward the main gate of the camp. Before she can run very far, Muhsfeldt draws his pistol and shoots her. The film closes with a voice-over recitation by the dead girl.


Production and release[edit]

The film was based upon Nelson's play, adapted from Nyiszli's book.[6]

An 80 percent scale "model" of the Birkenau camp was built near Sofia, Bulgaria for the production of the film using the original architectural plans. [7]

In the same year that he portrayed Eric Muhsfeldt in The Grey Zone, Keitel played the opposite role of a U.S. Army denazification investigator in the film Taking Sides.

The film was first released on DVD on March 18, 2003.[citation needed] It was released on DVD in the UK, in 2008.[citation needed]


The film holds a 68% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 82 reviews, with the consensus "A grim and devastating tale of the Holocaust."[8] In 2009, Roger Ebert included it in his "Great Movies" series.[9]


The film received the 2002 National Board of Review Freedom of Expression Award.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Holden, Stephen (2002-10-18). "FILM REVIEW; An Uprising at Auschwitz, With Emphasis on Realism". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-05-22.
  2. ^ "The Grey Zone (2002)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
  3. ^ Holden, Stephen (2002-10-18). "FILM REVIEW; An Uprising at Auschwitz, With Emphasis on Realism". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-05-22.
  4. ^ Nyiszli, Miklós (April 1, 2011). Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account (Overdrive Read epub ed.). Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. ISBN 978-1-61145-011-8.
  5. ^ Levi, Primo (1989). The Drowned and the Saved. Einaudi (Italian 1986), Summit Books (English 1988). ISBN 978-0-349-10047-0.
  6. ^ "MovieMaker Magazine: The Art and Craft of Making Movies".
  7. ^ Ann Hornaday (2002-10-20). "'The Grey Zone's' Stark Divide". The Washington Post. Washington, D.C. ISSN 0190-8286. OCLC 1330888409.
  8. ^ "The Grey Zone". Rotten Tomatoes.
  9. ^ "Great Movies".
  10. ^ "Freedom of Expression Award". Newmarket Press. Retrieved February 7, 2011.

External links[edit]