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GREY ZONE, THE(director/writer/editor/producer: Tim Blake Nelson; screenwriter: from the book “Auschwitz: a Doctor’s Eyewitness Account” by Miklos Nyiszli; cinematographer: Russell Lee Fine; editor: Michelle Botticelli; music:Jeff Danna; cast: David Arquette (Hoffman), Allan Corduner (Miklos Nyiszli), Steve Buscemi (Abramowics), Harvey Keitel (Muhsfeldt), Mira Sorvino (Dina), Natasha Lyonne (Rosa), Kamelia Grigorova (Girl), Daniel Benzali (Schlermer), David Chandler (Rosenthal); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Pamela Koffler/Christine Vachon/Avi Lerner/Danny Lerner; Lions Gate Films; 2001)
“The effort is sincere and the results are honest, but the film is so bleak that it’s hardly watchable.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director-actor Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone is a depressing fictionalized telling of the true story of the Auschwitz’s twelfth Sonderkommando, where a group of Jewish prisoners were employed by the Nazis to exterminate their fellow Jews in exchange for special privileges. They were granted a few more months to live in return for their help with the extermination of their fellow Jews in the gas chambers. It exposes something that hasn’t been widely told about the Holocaust, and should provoke some further thought. The effort is sincere and the results are honest, but the film is so bleak that it’s hardly watchable. Furthermore, I don’t see how beneficial it was to be brought so down without finding something relevant to say.

It should be noted that before The Grey Zone, Jews killing Jews in the camps was presented in Primo Levi’s eyewitness essay account of Auschwitz ”The Drowned and the Saved.”

The Grey Zone is loosely based on Miklos Nyiszli’s book, “Auschwitz: a Doctor’s Eyewitness Account,” and was adapted from a play directed by Nelson. Nyiszli was a troubled doctor who assisted Josef Mengele in his evil medical experiments on prisoners and who survived Auschwitz .

The Grey Zone is set in the oppressively dark concentration camp of Auschwitz in the autumn of 1944 (it was filmed inBulgaria).

The twelfth Sonderkommando are organizing a revolt against the Nazis and their crematoriums, as a group of Hungarian Sonderkommandos (played with intense zeal by David Arquette and Steve Buscemi) discover a 14-year-old girl (Kamelia Grigorova) who has somehow managed to survive the gas chamber. Defying danger, the Hungarians get help from a fellow Jew, Doctor Nyiszli (Allan Corduner), to revive the almost dead youngster and in the process wash away some of their guilt as they show they are still human. This moral decision to save her even if it jeopardizes their mission to detonate the crematoriums becomes the film’s grey zone.

Natasha Lyonne and Mira Sorvino choose torture rather than tell where their smuggled explosives are hidden. In return the Nazis make Sorvino watch as the other prisoners, who are not part of the plot, are executed. This leads to the mass execution of prisoners, as they are shot in the back while lying face down on the ground.

It was heavy going and I’m not sure if the results are more enlightening than Spielberg’s feel-good Schindler’s List. The dramatization is not helped by the stiff performance of Corduner and the odd stagelike dialogue of a healthy looking cast, whose language and looks seemed out of place for Auschwitz. Harvey Keitel plays a stereotyped Nazi officer with a thick German accent.

The deathlike shrieks from the gas chambers and the gruesome images of mass corpses and the everyday horrors of life for the prisoners, are accomplished by Nelson with an eye for detail. But I question if this kind of realism was worth it. It is no easy chore to tell the Holocaust story, as the brutality was only too real and that makes it probably almost impossible to capture on film. What I don’t doubt, is that Tim Blake Nelson delivered a serious film.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”