A harrowing, soul-searching account of the Holocaust is presented from a very unique perspective in "The Grey Zone," which is based in part on diaries found buried at Auschwitz and the memoirs of Miklos Nyiszli, a Jew who served as the camp's doctor and aided the abominable Josef Mengele in his experiments on prisoners.
The story tells of a 1944 revolt by the "Sonderkommando," a squad of Jewish internees who chose to serve as wardens of the concentration camp's gas chambers and crematoriums in exchange for a few more months of comparatively privileged life. In exchange for their detestable duties, they got larger quarters, fresh bed linens, good food, cigarettes, and the right to loot the belongings of new arrivals.
The selfishness and cowardice of this choice tortures most of the characters in this film, none more so than Hoffman (David Arquette in a rare dramatic and anguished performance), whom we see early on herding naked throngs into the "showers," promising "The sooner you shower, the sooner you'll be reunited with your families." As the doors are closed, the camera slowly creeps in on Arquette, hearing the gas pipes rattle to life and the screams that come moments later.
The experiences the film brings to life include the Sonderkommandos' whitewashing of bloodied gas chambers walls, cutting the hair off dead bodies and pulling any gold teeth -- knowing they will face this fate themselves after four months of living in shameful servitude, but living nonetheless.
With the end of their four months looming, these apostate prisoners (including Steve Buscemi, Daniel Benzali and David Chandler) plan an attack in hopes of destroying the ovens in which the Nazis force them to burn hundreds of dead bodies every day, polluting the camp's sky with ominous, heavy grey soot continually belched from flaming crematorium chimneys.
Explosives and guns are smuggled in with the dead bodies of women enslaved as munitions factory workers on the other side of the camp (Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne play conspirators later tortured), and complications arise in the form of a 14-year-old girl found alive underneath bodies in a gas chamber (who now must be hidden) and strife within the ranks of the insurgents (some would prefer to attempt escape).
But "The Grey Zone" isn't focused on the intricacies of this plot so much as the atoning perseverance found in the abjectly despondent hearts the of those attempting it.
Writer-director Tim Blake Nelson (director of the teenage "Othello" adaptation "O," and actor as dumb Delmer in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") adapted "The Grey Zone" from his own stage play and makes the film compelling by designing it not to horrify, but to testify. He's not going for the sorrowful poetry of "Schindler's List" here. He lets the misery and genocide speak for themselves, without any musical score or graphic imagery, and it's all the more powerful for it. You hear screams, but you don't see torture. You don't see prisoners shot, you see the faces of those watching. "The Grey Zone" allows your imagination to do the work -- and boy does it ever.
Nelson doesn't draw any conclusions about lives saved or lost, and whether or not there is ultimately any meaning in the morals and the actions of these men (and the munitions factory women who helped them). This movie sends you home thinking.
A few of Nelson's narrative choices are cause for distraction. His dialogue is inexplicably modern, with characters swearing as if David Mamet wrote the script. And the use of accents is a curious matter. Even when characters are speaking different languages in the same scene, everyone speaks in American-accented English, except the Nazis (including Harvey Keitel in an abhorrent, callous but genuinely human performance), who speak English with a German accent. It's not hard to follow, but it is a hiccup in the otherwise enfolding fabric of the film.
The involvement of the aforementioned camp doctor (Allan Corduner) in the rebellion amounts to little more than hiding what he knew from his Nazi handlers and helping hide the teenage girl. But he appears throughout the movie as a reminder of and a witness to everything, including his own culpability in the deaths of thousands as a way to save himself, his wife and his daughter. But even his morality is ultimately up to the individual viewer to decide. After all, without his memoirs would this movie even exist?