It’s easy to admire Tim Blake Nelson’s intentions in writing and directing “The Grey Zone.” By examining an uprising at Auschwitz by a Sonderkommando unit–a group of Jewish prisoners given special privileges for leading new arrivals into the gas chambers for execution–Nelson aims to dramatize the moral ambiguity embodied in men who both acted as Judas goats to their people and heroically stood up to their oppressors. The contrast is further amplified by two additional factors. One is the presence of Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jewish doctor who enjoys a relatively secure existence by assisting Josef Mengele in his horrendous work and collaborates with a German officer in charge of the crematorium, Erich Muhsfeldt, in order to save his wife and daughter from death. The other is the men’s discovery that a young girl in the latest group of gas chamber victims has survived the ordeal, and their determination to save her.
Unfortunately, Blake’s realization of his vision, while grimly serious, is ultimately disappointing. Though based on actual events (including the memoirs of the real Nyiszli), the narrative mixes historical with fictional characters, and it sets up its contrasts in entirely too schematic a fashion. The episode involving the girl, in particular, comes across as too insistently symbolic. The other great problem lies in the nature of the dialogue Nelson has put into his characters’ mouths. Simply put, the writing has the clipped, artificial tones of stage speech, and in far too many instances the speakers seem to be declaiming rather than conversing–sometimes powerfully (as when Muhsfeldt confesses his contempt for the Jews who help him), but too often archly. The lack of naturalness might be very much at home in the play on which Nelson has based the film; on screen, however, it makes everything seem self-consciously poetic and forced. (A lesser, but real, difficulty involves Nelson’s decision to have the inmates use unaccented English as a convention to indicate they’re speaking Hungarian, while the Germans employ a thick German accent. This might have seemed a good idea, but actually proves distracting, especially when Muhsfeldt is suddenly supposed not to be understanding what the prisoners are saying, though Nyiszli has been talking to him in unaccented English for some time.)
The quality of acting suffers seriously as the result of the dramaturgical miscalculations. Allan Corduner, for example, is a splendid performer (he was Sullivan in “Topsy Turvy”), but as Nyiszli he seems oddly constricted and tentative; Harvey Keitel, on the other hand, struts about too obviously as the brutish Muhsfeldt. The men of the Sonderkommando squad–David Arquette, Daniel Benzali, David Chandler–manage a vacant, haggard look suitable to their fear and self-loathing, but the crabbed dialogue they’ve been given make them all seem stilted and stiff; the same can be said of Steve Buscemi, as a Polish inmate privy to the uprising plot. All of them, moreover, look a bit too well fed to be entirely convincing as death camp prisoners, even privileged ones. The same surely isn’t true of Mira Sorvino, who seems truly emaciated as an inmate who’s caught transporting stolen gunpowder and tortured to reveal the plans for the rebellion.
In contrast to the affected writing and performances, the physical side of the production is quite impressive. The Auschwitz reconstruction (in Bulgaria) is very fine, and it’s photographed in appropriately gloomy tones by Russell Lee Fine. The smaller parts, moreover, are well filled, and one is unlikely to forget the scenes of crowds being herded into the gas chambers, dead bodies being carted to the ovens, and clothes and valuables being carefully separated into neat piles. (Showing a small orchestra of prisoners playing a Strauss waltz as newcomers arrive in the camp is an unnerving touch.)
The subject of “The Grey Zone” is a harrowing one, and you have to respect Nelson for wrestling with it. It’s a pity that his achievement doesn’t match his ambition.