At once brutally realistic and highly theatrical, Tim Blake Nelson’s screen version of his play “The Grey Zone” may well evoke the mechanized horror in the bowels of the Nazi death camps more vividly than any fictional film to date. But its staccato, Mamet-style dialogue exchanges, breathless pacing and remarkably healthy, well-fed-looking actors create a cumulative sense of artificiality that seriously undercuts the devastating effect clearly being sought in this fictionalized dramatization of the only organized uprising ever attempted by the prisoners at Auschwitz. Laudably avoiding cheap sentimentality and phony heroics in its aggressive investigation of an all-but-impossible moral quandary, this is a relentless, hard-edged, tough-minded picture that, even with supportive reviews, faces an uphill commercial struggle upon planned release by Lions Gate next spring.
Resisting any “Hollywood” impulse to provide uplift, fourth feature by Nelson (“Eye of God,” “Kansas,” the current “O”) centers upon the Sonderkommandos, Jews who helped prepare their fellow prisoners for the gas chamber and then “processed” their remains afterward; in exchange for their cooperation with the Nazis, members of these “special squads” were given privileges and immeasurably better living conditions than the norm, although they knew that they, too, would follow in their doomed comrades’ footsteps within four months at most.
Out of this wrenching and fundamentally hopeless dilemma arises the pivot of the story — the only known concentration camp prisoners’ revolt, on Oct. 7, 1944. Essentially framing the dramatic argument are two points of view — that of Dr. Nyiszli (Allan Corduner), a brilliant, fastidious Jew whose pact with the devil has him working on medical experiments with the notorious Dr. Mengele and who believes that “We’re all just trying to make it to the next day,” and that of Nazi Oberschaarfher Erich Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel), the blunt and dissolute crematorium overseer who despises the Jews for being such “easy” and willing victims.
With a low industrial hum churning ominously in the background as the gas chambers and ovens relentlessly mete out oblivion, a number of the mostly Hungarian prisoners in Auschwitz II-Birkenau argue over their planned revolt. These are not the meek, sheeplike inmates of many Holocaust pictures, but feisty, combative men who know their fates but believe they might be able to take part of the Third Reich down with them. To this end, makeshift weapons, a few guns and some gunpowder smuggled in by some women (Natasha Lyonne, Mira Sorvino) at a nearby munitions factory are being amassed, although there is much to-and-fro about goals, tactics, timing and so on.
Meanwhile, the 12th Sonderkommando, which includes Hoffman (David Arquette), Abramowics (Steve Buscemi), Rosenthal (David Chandler, who appeared in the stage production) and Schlermer (Daniel Benzali), goes about its grisly task of jamming prisoners into the death chambers, shoveling the corpses into ovens and disposing of the ashes. Obviously desensitized to an almost inhuman degree by his work, Hoffman is nonetheless stirred when a 14-year-old girl is found to have miraculously survived the gassing; he hides her from the Nazis, and her presence both complicates and inspires the rebellion that the prisoners are plotting.
The setting and situation are intrinsically compelling, to be sure, and visually the emphasis is on intense realism; working in near-full-sized replicas of sections of the camp on location in Bulgaria, Nelson and lenser Russell Lee Fine aggressively push the camera to the very depths of this hell on Earth, into the barracks, anterooms, gas chambers, ovens, graves and prison yards where executions for infractions were regularly carried out.
There are also various macabre and ironic touches — classical music being played by prisoners to “welcome” fresh arrivals, an enraged Hoffman beating an upstart newcomer to death despite the Sonderkommandos‘ proud self-distinction of doing no actual killing, the arrival of Allied bombers overhead merely inspiring the Nazis to set a faster schedule for killing Jews. As for the rebellion itself, it’s a briefly rousing but ultimately sorry affair with a grim aftermath.
The use of American accents for the Hungarians and German inflections for the Nazis works plausibly enough, but Nelson’s dialogue is predominantly composed of short sentences spat out with speed and precision; conversational tones and underlying thought processes don’t exist. Effect of verbal unreality is augmented by the generally hyper-active mode of the thesping, although on a case-by-case basis the actors — notably Arquette in an unusually dramatic role, Buscemi as a professional cynic and Keitel (who also came onboard as an exec producer) as the bloated, thoroughly jaded crematorium overseer — do solid, intense work. The character of Dr. Nyiszli, on whose memoirs the play and script are partly based, stands apart for his meticulous demeanor and reasoned behavior under enormous pressure, and Corduner commandingly portrays him as if he were acting in a particularly corrosive Harold Pinter play.