The Grey Zone
When a hundred or so naked, dirty, and confused Hungarian Jews are tossed into a gas chamber, the metal doors clanging shut, Tim Blake Nelson's camera tracks slowly into the face of one of the Sonderkommando, a Jew who has agreed to help annihilate his own people in exchange for better living conditions for four months until he himself is scheduled to be killed. The dolly-in shot is a startling one, since it's accompanied by the sound of the gas being turned on, followed by the shrieks of the Jews, and eventually their futile pounding on the walls, begging to be rescued from their mass execution. The pressure falls on David Arquette, of all people, the spokesman for 1-800-CALL-ATT, to convey the terror and guilt the Sonderkommando must have felt having to listen to so many people dying every day. Miraculously, Arquette pulls it off, because I forgot who I was watching, and sat there nearly trembling with the fear of what I might do having to face similar conditions (and -- had I lived in Europe at my current age 60 years ago, I no doubt would have).
Nelson settles his camera on many other horrors than this, and the effect grows and grows until the tear-jerking finale, a last reel that is never less than devastating. Hours after seeing this grim nightmare of a movie, I'm even more impressed that Nelson was able to pull off such an emotional victory, because the first half of the film is quite flawed. Aside from poorly establishing its characters, the narrative forces us to suffer through dozens of scenes featuring Harvey Keitel walking around delivering exposition in one of the worst (and most incoherent) German accents in movie history.
But once characters are in place and the atmosphere of Birkenau casts its pallor over the tone of the film (a brutal beating and shooting preceding the above gassing signals the beginning of the real tortures), Nelson's script (based on a book by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli -- played by Allan Corduner in the movie) reveals itself to be even-handed and compelling. There are a handful of rapid-fire arguments worthy of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet, in that both sides are maching-gunning out well-thought-out positions on topics whose consequences are extremely dramatic. Corduner and Keitel have some fancy back-and-forths, but the best moments are between passionately pragmatic David Chandler and the older, more conservatively nihilistic Daniel Benzali. When the meek Steve Buscemi enters into the debates (usually over how much these guys are gonna take it in the ass from the Nazis, or how soon they're gonna revolt), the dialogue rises to the occasion -- tackling its grisly moral dilemma without shying away once.
While it's no surprise that this script is based on Nelson's own play, given the perfectly measured arguments, the film is never short on cinematic virtues. Invisible cutting and delicate camera movements lend a realistic feeling to Auschwitz, allowing the actors to tell the story. That the movie is considerably better than Schindler's List
came as no surprise to me, but that it's able to inspire such dread and intense sadness
without seeming manipulative or mawkish is quite a feat -- especially since Nelson's last film O
was so poorly conceived and dramatically mishandled. (The entire sequence involving the revival of a girl who survived the gas chamber is white-knuckle riveting). I could have done with a longer film that developed its characters even more, and told a richer story with even more detail (and less of Keitel's silly kraut-speak), but in a brief 105 minutes, The Grey Zone
takes an ugly chapter of human history and instead of patting itself on the back for decrying the Holocaust or making another Hollywood-predictable triumph-of-the-human-spirit story, it shows that even amidst the most dire conditions with the fewest alternatives, man's moral choices are complex, and there is never an easy answer -- if it's ever possible to do the right thing. While the final, beautiful voice-over passage indicates that the title has to do with the color of the crematorium ashes, it also describes the murky ethical haze that clouds the best and the worst of humanity.