- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

''We have a justifiable tendency to simplify the way we perceive history," observes Tim Blake Nelson, the writer and director of a new film, "The Grey Zone," that endeavors to take an unflinching look at the harrowing reality of a Nazi extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The setting is October 1944, as time runs out on a group of Hungarian inmates who are plotting a futile uprising, engineered while serving as part of a so-called Sonderkommando squad, whose ranks have purchased a few months of better rations and conditions in exchange for ushering other inmates into the gas chambers and then disposing of their corpses and ashes.

Mr. Nelson's impressions of this desperate situation were expanded from a play that debuted off-Broadway in 1996. The title is drawn from a chapter in Primo Levi's memoir of Auschwitz captivity, "The Drowned and the Saved." Certain episodes also reflect the memoirs of a dubiously privileged inmate named Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian pathologist recruited for some of the grotesque medical experiments conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele.

"The Grey Zone" is Mr. Nelson's third movie credit as a director, following the still obscure "Eye of God," derived from one of his plays, and the provocative "O," which transposed the plot of Shakespeare's "Othello" to a contemporary prep school setting. He has become a familiar character actor in recent years, most notably as the fugitive sidekick of George Clooney and John Turturro in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Within the past year he has turned up conspicuously in "Minority Report," "Cherish" and "The Good Girl."

Mr. Nelson, 38, may be one of the more exotic American Jewish actor-writer-directors of his generation. Born and raised in Tulsa, Okla., he is the son of a wildcatter and petroleum geologist who descends from Russian Jewish immigrants. His mother's parents were Germans who fled the Hitler regime in the 1930s and sailed from England to the United States in 1940. Originally, Mr. Nelson had intended to dramatize the experiences of his maternal grandparents in some way, but that approach stalled and then pointed him in a direction that led to "The Grey Zone."

In retrospect, he finds it a little puzzling that he was slow to concentrate on the brutally compromised status of the Sonderkommando squads as a subject for investigation.

"It wasn't for a lack of familiarizing myself with the period," he recalls. "Nevertheless, I discovered something that had eluded me while I was reading Levi's book. He implores us to see the Holocaust not as a sequestered historical event but as something of continuing relevance to the present and future. He urges us to use it as a paradigm. Look at it as a factory system, a power system, a crucible of human interaction in truly infernal circumstances. Don't allow the relevance to perish. I think it's a more effective emphasis than the drumbeat of 'Never forget' that comes from my own people."

Mr. Levi, he says, "gets at something that transcends the specific Jewish suffering and loss, overwhelming as those are. And the play tries to isolate this one appalling and perhaps neglected aspect: Why was it that the Nazis were able to co-opt a labor force from the Jews themselves to do what the Sonderkommando squads did? If you had formulated such a choice before the war, I think all those men would have believed that they'd take a bullet before participating in the degradation and slaughter of fellow Jews. The answer doesn't tell us something special about Jews, but it does expose the limitations of the human animal when forced to certain extremes."

Mr. Nelson continues, "That is Levi's gift to us and the reason why I borrowed the title from one of his essays. The point is not to demonstrate how horrible the Holocaust was, how victimized the Jews were, or how villainous the Nazis were. The point is to explore the current relevance of that calamity. The Holocaust is vulnerable to hagiographic treatments of Jews. That's understandable because millions of Jews were killed by the system the Nazis deliberately created and then intensified, ultimately with such perverse innovations as compelling Jews to prey on Jews. But as Levi reminds us, extreme events often bring out the worst in people, not the best. The Jews were human beings, not saints. He thought it was time to confront that fact."

Mr. Nelson recalls spending about 1½ years writing a version of the events that brought his mother's family to the United States. "I had to put it aside," he explains. "It felt like a story that had been told before. As important as it was to me personally, I didn't feel that it merited being on a stage. With the Holocaust redundancy is unforgivable. You weaken the power of the stories that have been told by echoing them. I continued to do my research, which led to Levi's book. But the ground had been fertilized by the work I had to discard. It took me only about six months to complete a draft of 'The Grey Zone.'"

Mr. Nelson customarily completes a play or rejects it entirely. "I'm about 50-50 for being satisfied and dissatisfied with my efforts," he says. "I don't collaborate with actors while the play is being written not as a rule. 'The Grey Zone' became an exception because there were technical and aesthetic considerations about the characters' speech patterns that I needed to figure out. So I did have a reading of the first act to boost my own confidence. Funnily enough, because the characters were speaking so many things in a kind of inmate code, the actors were completely baffled. But I had listened to their struggles enough to know it would work, so I forged ahead. Ultimately, I settled on a convention where the Hungarian characters would speak in normal accents, without obvious traces of anything European. The German characters would use accents to differentiate them."

The original production, directed by Doug Hughes, was "small and claustrophobic, conceived for a confined space, suggesting a kind of gas chamber in which the audience would be compelled to bear witness." Mr. Nelson explains, "I have this theory that when writing a play, one should create an experience so utterly immediate and theatrical that it could only be a play. Any thought of turning it into a film would seem impossible. The sets were minimal: tables, chairs, benches. All the large-scale action took place offstage. All the work the Sonderkommandos did, for example. You never saw a single corpse. No flames, no ovens, no trains. Only one gun, in the possession of a German officer."

The movie version is contrived for total sensuous immersion in the camp environment. "By the same token, a film should be completely and utterly a film," Mr. Nelson reflects. "We tried to create an overwhelming visceral experience, without losing the deeply philosophical ethos of the play. Sorry for that term, but it's the only one that comes to mind. The least of our intentions was to make anyone cry."

Mr. Nelson decided at an early point that there would be no background music. In its stead, there's a pervasive undercurrent of sound effects, suggesting the throb of boilers and ovens. "The sound team had the script long before the actors," he says. "It took a lot of work to orchestrate the sound of the machines and of furnaces blazing. I went to the best people you can find, at Skywalker Sound."

Financed on a modest budget of $4 million, the movie was shot for the most part on sets built outside Sofia, Bulgaria. The principal financiers, former Israeli producers and exhibitors Ari and Danny Lerner, had established another far-flung beachhead with the former state-controlled film industry in Bulgaria.

"Sofia is now their production base," Mr. Nelson explains. "At first I thought we'd probably be in Prague, but Bulgaria offered us enough to make the film happen at the right price. In North America, the same production would have cost at least $30 million. There were 11 different nationalities represented in the cast and crew. On any given day you could hear Bulgarian, French, even Zulu. It was amazing, and it took a lot of patience, but it all worked out."

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