This review was written for the festival screening of "The Grey Zone".
"The Grey Zone" is an existential morality play about the Holocaust that asks: What would you have done? The question may make you uncomfortable -- indeed, discomfort seems to be the reigning principle behind the film, which writer-director Tim Blake Nelson
("O") has based on his own play. What may cause equal discomfort, though, is Nelson's decision to strip away all sentiment, ethnicity or heroism from his work.
This artistic choice relegates "The Grey Zone" to the nether regions of the boxoffice landscape. Some may applaud Nelson's fierce determination to, as he puts it, "de-sentimentalize" his subject matter and to rid the concentration camp of "quaint ways of speech." But the end result feels distinctly off-off-Broadway, a work of such rigid artistic principles that its theatrical life will likely be measured in days rather than weeks.
"The Grey Zone" derives from fascinating yet horrifying facts. In the death camps, the Nazis selected willing prisoners to act as Sonderkommandos, men who would prepare fellow Jews for the gas chambers, then process their corpses after gassings. In return, this elite group received unheard-of privileges until the time of their own slayings.
In 1944, Auschwitz's 12th Sonderkommandos staged an armed revolt that managed to destroy two crematoria. Nelson bases his dramatization of this rebellion partly on a memoir by Miklos Nyiszli
, a Hungarian Jewish doctor who assisted the notorious Dr. Mengele in his ghastly medical experiments.
The Hungarian Jews that make up this 12th group prove to be the most efficient of the Nazis' facilitators. But as their own deaths draw near, the men grow desperate to give their lives meaning. For their mutiny to succeed, they persuade female inmates in a nearby munitions factory to smuggle gunpowder to them.
Then a freak incident triggers the rebellion. A young girl somehow survives a gassing. The group revives her but has no way to hide. Her very presence endangers the uprising.
Nelson, working in a meticulous re-creation of an extermination plant in Bulgaria's Boyana Studios, lets everything -- the routine of the death mills, the conspiratorial planning, the relationships of prisoners with their captors -- unfold in a matter-of-fact way. You are to understand that brutality is the norm, and that those in special squads have ceased being human.
Everyone talks in the same clipped, measured tones, with emotions minimized. Maybe this is the way things were in the camps. Maybe this isn't. But in choosing this approach, Nelson lets some individuality seep from his drama.
Harvey Keitel, playing the officer in charge, tries out a serviceable German accent. But all the other actors, playing Hungarians or Poles, speak in flat American accents. But late in the film, it's a shock to realize that even though everyone is speaking English, you are meant to imagine that Keitel can't understand what the men are saying. This takes you out of the film's reality in a more jarring way than any quaint way of speech.
The rebellion itself is treated as partially successful yet clumsily staged and poorly organized. Historical accounts differ on this point, but this interpretation again falls in line with Nelson's determination not to taint any character with a whiff of heroism. Having denied their own humanity, these men are granted none by Nelson either.
The acting is solid. Standouts include David Arquette
as the most emotional of the bunch, Steve Buscemi
as a Pole who trusts no one and Allan Corduner
as Nyiszli, who will do anything to save his wife and child on the outside. Mira Sorvino
and Natasha Lyonne
play brave munitions workers who refuse to divulge the uprising despite hideous torture.
Maria Djurkovic's grim, ashen sets and Russell Lee Fine
's claustrophobic cinematography are all too efficient in trapping the viewer inside this gray zone where the question is asked over and over: What would you have done?
THE GREY ZONE
Lions Gate Films
Millennium Films presents
a Goatsingers production
in association with Killer Films
Producers: Pamela Koffler
, Christine Vachon
, Tim Blake Nelson
, Avi Lerner
, Danny Lerner
Screenwriter-director: Tim Blake
Based on the play by: Tim Blake
Executive producers: Danny Dimbort
, Trevor Short
, Brad Weston, John Wells, Harvey Keitel
Director of photography: Russell Lee Fine
Production designer: Maria Djurkovic
Music: Jeff Danna
Costume designer: Marina Draghici
Editors: Tim Blake Nelson
, Michelle Botticelli
Hoffman: David Arquette
Muhsfeldt: Harvey Keitel
Abramowics: Steve Buscemi
Dina: Mira Sorvino
Rosa: Natasha Lyonne
Nyiszli: Allan Corduner
Schlermer: Daniel Benzali
Rosenthal: David Chandler
Running time -- 108 minutes
No MPAA rating