Many Holocaust films present the ethical dilemna of trying to stay alive at the cost of allowing others to die or even sending others to their death. A few films might focus on the dreaded Kapos in the camps -- or on the elitist Jewish Council members who helped organize the transport groups -- or on the musicians/performers who entertained the Nazis -- all of whom hoped that they would be allowed to survived. But this film focuses on the Sonderkommandos -- the special workers -- who ushered Jewish victims to the gas chambers and burned the bodies. They too hoped to survive. But they must have known that they were going to be murdered eventually, if only because they had become the most dangerous witnesses to the cold Nazi horror. And the film begins by informing us that these groups of Sonderkommandos were never allowed to live longer than four months.
There are several reasons you must see this film. First, it is based on the diary of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew chosen by Josef Mengele to be the head pathologist at Auschwitz. And it dramaticizes the true attempt by Sonderkommandos to destroy the Auschwitz gas chambers.
Second, it focuses on ethical dilemnas faced by Dr. Nyiszli and the various Sonderkommandos who are trying to save themselves, their families, or ... just someone ... anyone. To say that these men were "co-opted" by the Nazis is to ignore the horror of the coercion, debasement and dehumanization that the Nazis inflicted -- not only on their prisoners, but upon themselves. One can imagine that some Sonderkommandos were selfish -- just as some Kapos were cruel and some doctors who assisted the Nazis were accomplices. But the question remains -- what would you have done in the face of such coercion and duress?
Third, the film -- based on Tim Blake Nelson's play -- is not the typical Holocaust film. There is very little redeeming behavior. There is no uplifting ending. The grey zone of moral ambiguity is presented as a cold, unfeeling, horrifying place -- where you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't -- which means that they are all damned! For the first third of the film, the script is obtuse, confusing, and disconnecting -- as it should be, considering that we may as well be taking the point of view of someone who just arrived on a train and entered the gates of hell. How can any of this make sense? In the opening scene, the Doctor is asked to save the life of a Jew who attempted suicide. How absurd can that be -- to save the life of someone who will sooner rather than later be murdered by the Nazis anyway?!
In conclusion, the play/film contains dialogue and scenes that are memorable. This is one of my favorites. One Jewish leader is demanding that they destroy the gas chambers as soon as possible. But another Jewish leader is still planning on escape, arguing that he has every right to expect to live. The first leader replies, something to the effect that, after what he has seen and done, he does not want to live!
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, April 18, 2004. Last night, after seeing a Holocaust documentary on Kurt Gerron ("Prisoner of Paradise") a friend of mine asked me what I would have done? I told her that it would depend on whom I was caring for -- my wife and my daughters -- my parents. It was then that I realized that I would have probably done everything that every Jew did during the Holocaust. I would have tried to save myself and my family. I would have abandoned others -- even betrayed others. I would have killed. I would have fought the Nazis. And I would have probably been killed for it. I would have despaired -- tried suicide -- become depressed, useless to everyone. I don't think I would have survived. I think the only question in that regard -- and it shows how irrelevant the question really is -- is "how soon would I have died." That is why I remember Holocaust Memorial Day -- so that I will never forget -- and I can help work towards a time when such a hell will not occur in Europe, in Africa, in the Middle East, in the US, ... anywhere.
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