Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, better known for his acting (The Good Girl, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) than for his forays into film directing (O, Eye of God), The Grey Zone is the harrowing, fact-based story of the only armed rebellion to take place inside the Auschwitz death camp. The inmates involved in the uprising, all of whom lost their lives, were members of the Sonderkommando, a special squad of Jewish prisoners who, in exchange for better food, cigarettes and a few extra months of life, escorted their fellow Jews into the gas chambers, then cremated their bodies afterward. It was a pact with the devil.
Arquette plays a kommando named Hoffman who, along with Steve Buscemi's Abramowics, Daniel Benzali's Schlermer and David Chandler's Rosenthal, plots to blow up buildings and destroy camp machinery using makeshift weapons, homemade grenades and guns smuggled into the camp by Polish partisans. Women prisoners (including Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne) in nearby Birkenau manage to sneak a small quantity of gunpowder to the men, hidden on corpses that are headed for the crematoria.
The rebellion is threatened when Hoffman finds a young girl who has miraculously survived a gassing. Vowing to save her, he hides her in the infirmary where a Jewish doctor named Nyiszli (Alan Corduner) ensures better treatment for his own wife and daughter by assisting Dr. Josef Mengele with his infamous medical experiments. Nyiszli, Mengele, the girl and a German soldier named Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel) were real people. The other characters are fictional but inspired by diaries that were unearthed after the war.
The men argue over the girl. Some see her as their one chance at redemption, as if saving her would somehow erase their complicity in the deaths of thousands of others. A few recognize the folly and hypocrisy of such wishful thinking.
The film is exceedingly graphic -- nearly as graphic as news footage of the actual camps. Cinematographer Russell Lee Fine, who also shot Nelson's first two pictures, does an extraordinary job here, achieving a measure of authenticity that is not for the weakhearted (although the lighting sometimes feels overly painterly). All the scenes have a kind of dingy, gray palette, as if some sort of sickly mist were clinging to everything. Ubiquitous black smoke bellows from the crematoria chimneys. Watching the Sonderkommando Jews shovel corpses into the ovens, you sense what hell must look like. Even the wide-open spaces of the death camp grounds feel claustrophobic.
While the look and ambience are uncomfortably effective, the performances are not. With the exception of Arquette, who does a credible job in what turns out to be a small role, and Sorvino, who soars above everybody else on screen, the acting is stilted and unconvincing. Buscemi, in particular, is badly miscast. One reason the performances prove so unsatisfying -- even irritating -- is the way Nelson has instructed his actors to deliver their lines. They speak in short, choppy sentences, as if they were boxers in a ring jabbing at their opponents with words instead of fists. The staccato rhythm, insistent cadence and rapid-fire speech pattern recall the works of David Mamet. Not only does it expose the film's -- and the writer-director's -- stage roots (Nelson's 1996 stage version picked up four Obies), it also feels completely out of place.
Another warning about the film, albeit not a criticism, is that it exposes the worst in human nature and raises profoundly unsettling moral questions. It highlights men who have lost all claim to decency or humanity, men who will do anything to stay alive one more day. "We're not murderers," insists one of the kommando members. "We don't kill." But by so consciously assisting the Nazis in carrying out their plan of extermination, these men cannot escape their responsibility or guilt.
To his credit, Nelson, whose mother fled Germany with her family in 1938, does not present these men as heroes. Rather, he seems to be shoving shameful, even despicable, human beings in our faces and then asking the audience, "Would you have behaved any differently?" Most of us are unwilling to believe that we would descend to such depths. But how many of us have ever been faced with the kind of cruelty and savagery that prevailed in a concentration camp?