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Holocaust impiety in Tim Blake Nelson's The grey zone

Boswell, MJ 2009, Holocaust impiety in Tim Blake Nelson's The grey zone , in: Holocaust Representations Since 1975, 18 September 2009, University of Chester. (Unpublished)

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    Please note this is an unpublished working paper that was presented at the conference named above. For details of the citations used in this paper please contact the author directly at

    Tim Blake Nelson's film The Grey Zone (2001), set in Auschwitz-Birkenau in October 1944, dramatises the final days of the twelfth Sonderkommando, or 'death squad', that was responsible for running the camp crematoria and ultimately for destroying half of the camp's ovens during a chaotic uprising that was ruthlessly put down by the SS. The film takes its title from an essay of the same name by Primo Levi that was included in his final collection, The Drowned and the Saved (1986), and is grounded in Levi's 'survivor philosophy' and also testimonies written by survivors who were attached to the Sonderkommandos, with key storylines deriving from Dr Niklos Nyiszli's account of his time spent assisting Dr Mengele with his medical experiments. The film can be understood as a graphic retort to the anti-representational ethos that has been championed by directors such as Claude Lanzmann: in the Director's Notes that were circulated to the cast and crew before filming, Nelson advised that there would be 'probably as much on-screen killing as any serious film I can think of'. The film featured a stellar cast of Hollywood 'A list' stars'; however, given its commitment to portraying the very worst aspects of the genocide, it was perhaps unsurprising that it performed poorly at the US box office and was not widely distributed in Europe. This paper takes The Grey Zone as an example of a kind of 'impious' art that is pro-representational and concerned to challenge popular interpretations and received understandings of the Holocaust. It looks at the ways that the film encourages its audience to identify with the moral and existential (if not physical) predicament of those who existed within the 'grey zone' of the camps, self-consciously following Levi's lead in using the specific experiences of the Sonderkommando members as a vehicle for exploring more universal aspects of the human condition.

    Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
    Uncontrolled Keywords: Holocaust, criticism, analysis, cinema
    Themes: Subjects / Themes > P Language and Literature > PR English literature
    Subjects / Themes > D History General and Old World > DD Germany
    Memory, Text and Place
    Schools: Colleges and Schools > College of Arts & Social Sciences > School of Humanities, Languages & Social Sciences > Centre for English Literature and Language
    Colleges and Schools > College of Arts & Social Sciences
    Colleges and Schools > College of Arts & Social Sciences > School of Humanities, Languages & Social Sciences
    Refereed: No
    Depositing User: MJ Boswell
    Date Deposited: 01 Oct 2009 16:46
    Last Modified: 20 Aug 2013 16:59

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