"The Grey Zone," writer-director Tim Blake Nelson's film drama about a real-life prisoners revolt at Auschwitz, is a movie so rigorous and hard, so brutally fixated on the sheer physical horror of the Holocaust, that it becomes difficult to watch and to contemplate.
It's a good film but not a completely satisfying one, even though the material is unique and valuable. Nelson (the writer-director of "O" and co-star of the Coen Brothers' "O Brother Where Art Thou?") is dealing with true-life horror here. Adapting his own acclaimed 1996 play about the revolt of the Sonderkommando - the Jewish Auschwitz inmates who guided their fellow prisoners to the ovens in exchange for special favors and a few more months of life - he refuses to sentimentalize the incidents, or even sometimes to lend them the honest, simple emotion you'd expect.
Instead, he directs this film like a heist movie, and most of his actors like cops and crooks in a film noir thriller. Two "Grey Zone" actors were in "Reservoir Dogs" -Harvey Keitel as German officer Mussfeldt, and Steve Buscemi as Abramowics, a Polish inmate - and they act here in almost the same swift, brutal key. The mood is closer to Quentin Tarantino than "Night and Fog" or "Schindler's List." Almost everything is terse, clipped, racy, profane. The usual lachrymose scenes of suffering are largely absent, and midway through, when we watch two gaunt-faced female prisoners (Dina and Rosa, played by Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne) breaking down under torture, it almost seems to belong to a different picture.
"The Grey Zone" is taken partly from a memoir by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish doctor who assisted Josef Mengele in his macabre experiments. Nyiszli (played by Alain Corduner, the Sullivan of Mike Leigh's "Topsy-Turvy") is a major character here, witness to the plots of the Sonderkommando and the ploys of the Nazis. Nelson takes us through the time before the revolt - the plans for an assault on Crematorium 3 by Hungarian Sonderkommandos Hoffman (David Arquette), Schlermer (Daniel Benzali), and Rosenthal (David Chandler) - and then he throws in what seems a blatant heart-tugger: a young girl (Kamelia Grogorova) who survives the gassing of the newly arrived prisoners and becomes the object of a frantic attempt to save her by Hoffman and others. (Incredibly, this incident is also based on fact.)
Yet even with this huge temptation, Nelson keeps the movie cool and hard. Visually, this works well. The movie, shot by Russell Lee Fine ("O"), has an ashy, bleak and barren look. But when critics keep comparing the film's dialogue to David Mamet's, they're not being wholly complimentary. The talk, like a pastiche of Mamet or Pinter, is so dry, cold and patterned that humanity seems drained out of it.
That's the point, of course. Humanity has been drained out of the world of the camps. The revolt is doomed before it starts. Most of us have probably never heard of the Sonderkommando or the fact that this unit, the 12th of 13, actually damaged the crematorium so badly that half its ovens were never repaired.
That points up the value of "The Grey Zone." Nelson has stylized the dialogue too much; he has the Germans speaking German-accented English and the Hungarians American vernacular, and he implies that neither can understand the other. Though all the actors are good, only Keitel, Corduner and Chandler create rounded characters.
But in the end, the flaws matter less than the story as a whole. "The Grey Zone" has been on the shelf for a year since I saw it at the 2001 Toronto festival, and that's a shame. One can't deny its seriousness and quality. There are better holocaust dramas than "Grey Zone" - "Schindler's List" for one, and due later this year, Roman Polanski's magnificent "The Pianist." But few will disturb you like "The Grey Zone" - mostly because it won't try for tears.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"The Grey Zone"
Directed and written by Tim Blake Nelson; based on the memoir "Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account" by Miklos Nyiszli; photographed by Russell Lee Fine; edited by Nelson, Michelle Botticelli; production designed by Maria Djurkovic; music by Jeff Danna; produced by Pamela Koffler, Christine Vachon, Nelson, Avi Lerner, Danny Lerner. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday, Oct. 25. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (strong Holocaust violence, nudity and language).
Hoffman - David Arquette
Schlermer - Daniel Benzali
Abramowics - Steve Buscemi
Rosenthal - David Chandler
Dr. Miklos Nyiszli - Allan Corduner
Muhsfeldt - Harvey Keitel
Dina - Mira Sorvino Rosa - Natasha Lyonne
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.