It is true, I think, that the Holocaust is best written about, not filmed.
Anyone who decides to make a film about the Holocaust had better get it right. Writer/director Tim Blake Nelson’s new film “The Grey Zone” is built on the true story of a man who experienced the human tragedy of being forced to work among the Sonderkommandos, inmates from concentration camps who were forced by gun and heel and word to accomplish the job of gassing Jews at an ever-increasing rate.
Although this is a very powerful film with the best of intentions, Mr. Nelson made one egregious error that undermines the impact. Almost all the actors, young and old, speak in contemporary American accents, a jarring and constant reminder that we are not in World War II, but in a Hollywood version of it. If ever there were an imperative for subtitles, this subject is it. The movie cries out for the multiple accents of the Germans, Jews, Hungarians, Poles and Bulgarians who are suffering on the screen. When one turns to another and screams “**** you,” the authenticity collapses. Native languages and subtitles are the only medium for these images.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Poland. Number 1 Crematorium, 1944. Showerheads. Trucks piled high with ashes and shovels. Furnace. The sunken eyes of adults, the terror of children. The scientists, “We must increase the rate.” The soundtrack of screaming – nearby, middle distance, distant. Unloading the bodies. The thuds. The camp orchestra plays as the lines are herded to the crematorium. Jews in fedoras and ties, their Sunday best, dignity. Black smoke from the chimney. Shoveling the coal, shoveling the bodies, stuffing the ovens, shoveling the ashes. Bodies slung like meat. Thuds.
Possessions and looters. Watches, jewelry, things that were loved, ripped from bodies. Betrayers. Guards, guard dogs. Guns, fists, boots. Crematorium 1,2,3,4. Long hair hung up to dry. One person tries to save one life. The value of a single life when life has been devalued altogether. What will people do to stay alive? The final degradation: doing this to your own people. The awful resonance of today. We fiddle again while the world burns.
Movies have been made before that touch our collective core. Usually they teach us not only the lessons of history, but the soil from which the Holocaust erupted. When an audience is dropped into the horrific imagery of the camps themselves, something always goes wrong – Harvey Keitel’s German accent, the actors’ fit, well-nourished bodies.
It is true, I think, that the Holocaust is best written about, not filmed. This is one lesson we should learn from those who experienced it – from memoirs, biographies, histories, from the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We read at our own pace, our imaginations conjure what they will. But a movie does that work for us. A fictional movie tells us what it was like, and that is impossible. In spite of the good intentions of actors and director, watching this movie felt like some awful form of collusion.
Copyright (c) Illusion
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