The Grey Zone

2002, R, 108 min. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Starring Steve Buscemi, David Arquette, Harvey Keitel, Natasha Lyonne, Mira Sorvino, Allan Corduner, David Chandler, Daniel Benzali.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 15, 2002

The Grey Zone

Bleak and often hard to watch, this well-meaning film based on actual events tells the story of Auschwitz's twelfth Sonderkommando. One of 13 consecutive special squads of Jewish prisoners whose job it was to do the grunt work of sending other Jews to the gas chambers, the Sonderkommandos were rewarded with special camp privileges of larger quarters, better food, alcohol and cigarettes, and whatever they could loot from the victims' discarded belongings and bodies. Their job was to lead the Jews into the chambers, strip them of their valuables, and dispose of their gassed corpses. To turn down the job meant immediate extermination for any of these “chosen.” Their moral dilemma presented a particularly cruel choice: become an active participant in the killing machine or be killed oneself. The dilemma is outlined in a trenchant essay, “The Drowned and the Saved,” by Primo Levy, which provided one of Nelson's inspirations for the film. If you're only familiar with Nelson's acting work as the goofball in both O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Good Girl, a glance at his burgeoning directing career provides more clues to his darker side. His first, The Eye of God, is a study of religious obsession, and his follow-up, O, is a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare's Othello. The Grey Zone details in often harrowing detail the mechanics of the death camps. And though the intentions are high-minded, the various sights will often compel viewers to avert their eyes. Bleak in a visual as well as narrative sense, The Grey Zone literally lives up to its title. In a sense, it's a welcome antidote to the recent run of feel-good Holocaust movies such as Life Is Beautiful, Schindler's List, and Jakob the Liar. But The Grey Zone errs in going too far in the other direction, making itself, at times, unwatchable. The performances are wonderful. Mira Sorvino is practically unrecognizable as an emaciated prisoner who is also placed in a morally untenable situation. And who knew David Arquette had such a dark, dramatic side? Unfortunately, Keitel, in the role of a German commander, is made to speak in a cliched German accent worthier of an old Hollywood propaganda film than this more enlightened work. The Grey Zone bogs down a bit as it follows the narrative provided by another work: Miklos Nyiszli's Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account. Also, the movie's storyline is not always perfectly clear, seemingly falling into the same murky “grey zone” as everything else. If stars could be awarded on the basis of good intentions, The Grey Zone should be king of the galaxy. Unfortunately, it lands on earth with something of a thud.

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The Grey Zone, Tim Blake Nelson, Steve Buscemi, David Arquette, Harvey Keitel, Natasha Lyonne, Mira Sorvino, Allan Corduner, David Chandler, Daniel Benzali

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