Grey Zone blurred line between Jew and Nazi

HISTORICALLY, the stereotypical representation of Jews on film is as weak and passive.

This is most evident in the Holocaust genre in which Jews are nearly always portrayed as underserving victims.

Schindler's List is perhaps the benchmark. By choosing to focus on Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) and Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), director Steven Spielberg marginalised key Jews to supporting roles with the exception of Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley).

He portrayed them as an un-rounded, infantilised, monolithic and undifferentiated mass, lacking in psychological depth, to be saved or killed at the whim of the gentiles.

Post-Schindler's List, though, contemporary cinema has begun to present a new paradigm in Holocaust filmmaking in its refusal to only present this scenario.

Jews are not only shown fighting back, but also killing other Jews, blurring the line between victim and victimiser.

The Grey Zone, directed by Tim Blake Nelson, is based upon a true story.

The Jewish Sonderkommando - those camp inmates selected by the SS to assist with the killing process - clandestinely stockpile weapons for a revolt in Birkenau.

Female Jewish inmates forced to work at the UNIO munitions factory in Auschwitz smuggle explosive powder to the Sonderkommando by hiding it on the bodies of the dead for the Sonderkommando to find and store.

During the revolt, one crematorium is blown up and a number of guards are shot. Indeed, the film's publicity emphasised the brave defiance of the Twelfth Sonderkommando.

Taking its name from the Primo Levi essay of the same name, The Grey Zone also explores that ambiguous 'grey zone' in which the sharp distinctions between Nazi perpetrators and their victims are blurred.

By focusing on the role of the Sonderkommando in the mechanics of extermination, the film explores the complicity of the Holocaust's victims in the Final Solution. Thus the film helps to revise the dominant image of Jewish victimhood.

The Sonderkommando do not look like victims. Since they are accorded special privileges, they eat, dress and sleep better than the other camp inmates.

One critic even suggested that in their explicit language and aggressive behaviour they are reminiscent of urban American gangsters.

The Sonderkommando are not presented as having a unifying sense of ethical/moral, national or religious values (even beyond mere survival). Their differences are emphasised.

A key scene is set in the anteroom of the gas chamber where the victims are asked to undress. An unnamed Jewish deportee (Lee Wilkof) accuses a member of the Sonderkommando (Hoffman played by David Arquette) of collaboration by insisting that Hoffman is lying when he reassures the new arrivals that they will be fine.

"Tell me, you f****** Nazi, tell me I am going to live."

Hoffman responds by brutally beating the man into a bloody mess with his bare fists resulting in the man's death.

As Hoffman crouches on the floor, ashamed and shocked by this act of violence, a Nazi guard observing the whole incident leers at him, a smirk playing across his face.

His smile is presented in point-of-view close-up suggesting that Hoffman has crossed the line from being a Jewish victim to a 'Nazi' perpetrator.

Overall, it is a fascinating film in which many questions are raised. It is also one of the few to focus in detail on the mechanics of the extermination.

It is also part of a wider trend of films that present Jewish resistance, but also which blurs that distinction between Jew and Nazi.

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph