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The Grey Zone
Stars: David Arquette, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Mira Sorvino, Natasha Lyonne, Daniel Benzali, Allan Corduner, David Chandler and Kamelia Grigorova
Director/Scriptwriter: Tim Blake Nelson (based on his play "The Grey Zone")
Music: Jeff Danna
Cinematographer: Russell Lee Fine
Lions Gate/Millennium Films
No rating (but could be "R")

The Holocaust was insanity personified. Tim Blake Nelson (The Good Girl) wrote a play called The Grey Zone, meaning that fine space where one does what one can to survive, even for a little while. Nelson adapted his play to the screen and presents a harrowing account of life in Auschwitz, the autumn of 1944, months before the fall of Germany where the word "survival" meant living moments and hope was banished from the language. The time span in the film is only a few days, but it feels like a lifetime to the audience as events unfold before them.

In Auschwitz III, Birkenau, there were groups of Hungarian Jews who were designated a "special squad" (Sonderkommando 12), forced to work in the crematoria. There, they extracted gold fillings, sorted clothing, and clipped hair from the dead, stuffed dead bodies into the ovens, hauled the ashes out, cleaned the "shower rooms" and even invited incoming Jewish families to "shower and be together afterward." We know that the showers were really gas chambers. In exchange for this work, the men were given privileges of better clothing, good food, wine and, in general, an easier life. For a time, that is, because, as one succinctly puts it, "No one leaves Auschwitz alive. No one."

We follow a particular group that includes David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Daniel Benzali and David Chandler as they perform their hated tasks. A rebellion is secretly being planned and the Nazi guards are suspicious. On the women's side, Natasha Lyonne and Mira Sorvino work in a gunpowder factory and secretly smuggle small packets of powder to the men to use in explosive devices. In another storyline, Dr. Nyiszli (Allan Corduner) is saving his life and that of his family by helping Dr. Mengele perform experiments. Nyiszli is watched by a head officer (Keitel) and even engages in some banter with him, but Keitel always lets him know who is the boss. Nyiszli's technique as a pathologist is considered rare. There is always a kink in the best-laid plans and here the gunpowder smuggling is discovered. Torture is imminent, then, another discovery, a young Hungarian girl has actually survived the gas chamber. This is a third storyline and the writer leads you down paths you may not want to go.

This material is based on true incidents and Nelson has placed them into a cohesive plot. The camera, as in the docu-drama, Bloody Sunday, is in-your-face so that you feel the heat of the ovens, smell the stench of decay and ache with torture. Dialogue is spoken matter-of-factly. Why raise your voice with anticipation when there is nothing to anticipate? Individual performances do stand out. There are unrecognizable Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne who are brutally tortured, Allan Corduner as the doctor who hates himself for his survival skills and David Arquette as a man who thinly hides passion under a veneer of sarcasm. Keitel is the only one who attempts a German accent, otherwise, the dialogue is in English and we have to figure out who can't understand the common language and who can.

The Grey Zone is thought provoking and numbing to watch. The question posed is, "What would you do in this situation? Anything to survive?" The human mind, it seems, has a near-infinite ability to rationalize events into something it can process without breaking. The green lawns with sprinklers arenít a park, they hide ovens.

Copyright 2002 Marie Asner
Submitted 10/29/02

 

 
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