- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

''The Grey Zone" is unlikely to be mistaken for mass entertainment, but it commands considerable respect for sustaining historical evocation of the harrowing kind terminally harrowing, as a matter of fact. The setting is the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in October 1944, and the intention of writer-director Tim Blake Nelson, expanding his own theater piece of 1996, is to immerse us in a charnel-house atmosphere and state of mind.
The episodes unfold on the eve of a futile uprising planned by a group of largely Hungarian Jewish inmates who have purchased a few months' worth of better rations and conditions by consenting to brutally usher new prisoners into the gas chambers and then dispose of their corpses and ashes. (The typical Sonderkommando life span was four months.)
Mr. Nelson depicts these duties with incisive but graphic and excruciating candor, incorporating cruelties that range from summary beatings and executions to the cleaning, filling and activation of a gas chamber and then the collection of hair and gold fillings from the victims.
Eventually, the slaughtered are reduced to ashes in an environment that always seems to be choked with sensory impressions of smoke, dust, toil and squalor. The most lasting single impression from the movie may be the infernal spectacle of work gangs repeatedly feeding and then emptying the ovens.
The title derives from a chapter in Primo Levi's memoir of an abbreviated Auschwitz captivity, "The Drowned and the Saved." One of the subplots dramatizes a strange occurrence discussed by Levi: the miraculous survival of an adolescent girl in a heap of gas-chamber victims.
Preserving her life becomes a quixotic obsession for several of the doomed squad members, beginning with David Arquette as Hoffman, who discovers her alive, and extending to a camp physician, Allan Corduner as the authentic Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, whose memoirs also supplied Mr. Nelson with certain episodes.
Dr. Nyiszli, a Hungarian pathologist, was spared from execution so he could assist the notorious Dr. Joseph Mengele in his monstrous experiments, particularly those involving his fixation with the physiology of twins. One of the more effective episodes pretends to eavesdrop on a typical Nyiszli-Mengele consultation.
Arguably unwieldy with subplots, the movie also attempts to honor the desperate heroism of a group of female inmates, exemplified by Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne, who have abetted the conspiracy by smuggling ammunition and explosives into the camp. They are part of a slave-labor force employed at a munitions factory near Birkenau.
Mr. Nelson never contrives a foolproof structure of suspense and tension while keeping tabs on the approaching revolt, the sufferings of the women and then the discovery of the surviving girl, which revives an irrational protective impulse in hard-bitten and self-loathing men. However, the sheer desperation and tenacity of the principal characters create a distinctive, gripping mood of fatalism.
Nothing of a clearly redemptive kind is permitted to thrive or encourage false hopes in the lethal and degrading environment of "The Grey Zone." At best, reviving the girl is a futile act of defiance against both authority and fate, but it acquires a fleeting nobility in such extreme and hopeless circumstances.
It seems amazing that these men insist on making a case for any decent impulse because we're effectively conditioned to their hostile and intimidating behavior with each other in the introductory episodes, in which no one's good faith or survival can be taken for granted.
Mr. Corduner and David Chandler and Daniel Benzali as squad members named Rosenthal and Schlermer, respectively turn in stunning low-key performances. All three seem to defy recognition from previous movies or television shows. It's as if they had been reserved for flawless debuts in "The Grey Zone."
Even the overfamiliar faces Miss Sorvino, Steve Buscemi as a squad go-between in negotiations with a Polish contingent, Harvey Keitel as a contemptuous German officer, and the customarily goofy Mr. Arquette seem to shed the trivializing tendencies of their familiarity while participating in Mr. Nelson's ensemble.
Disillusion does make inroads, as Mr. Nelson fails to prevent melodramatic lapses from accumulating in the closing episodes that depict the uprising and its suppression.
Still, "The Grey Zone" remains a remarkably strong and uncompromising project. Mr. Nelson may help clarify a supremely appalling and haunting aspect of the Holocaust's depravity. He certainly demonstrates that nothing is going to be the last word cinematically, not even Steven Spielberg's movie version of "Schindler's List."

TITLE: "The Grey Zone"
RATING: R (Pervasive ominous atmosphere, profanity and graphic violence against a historical backdrop of the Nazi extermination camps in World War II)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Based on a play of the same name by Mr. Nelson and a memoir by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli.
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

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