The Grey Zone

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The Grey Zone

One of the knocks against Schindler's List, and against non-documentary Holocaust films in general, comes from the notion that dramatized portrayals by definition fail to convey the Holocaust's singularly horrific significance. That's fair enough, particularly considering the availability of firsthand accounts. In the grand scheme, who can speak of the Holocaust with more authority, Elie Wiesel–who once said, "To direct the massacre of Babi Yar smells of blasphemy, and to make up extras as corpses is obscene"–or Roberto Benigni? But that view fails to account for the fact that an event so important demands a variety of responses, and that even a response as stylized as Benigni's can have an effect. Aside from a structure and moments of dialogue that reveal its theatrical origins, however, there's nothing overtly stylized about The Grey Zone, an almost physically upsetting portrayal of Auschwitz's Sonderkomandos, Jews granted temporary reprieves and special privileges in exchange for their work at the concentration camp. Adapting his own play, writer-director Tim Blake Nelson unsparingly presents Auschwitz's everyday workings, as his characters lead new arrivals to the death chambers, work the furnaces that incinerate the bodies, dispose of the remains, and (in the case of the survivor whose account provided much of the film's basis) assist Josef Mengele in his experiments. The film's protagonists balance the instinct to survive against the urge to confront the absolute evil that's killing their people, and which they know will eventually kill them. Mostly, this takes the form of plotting a much-discussed, long-delayed uprising, and later, caring for a girl who miraculously survived the gas. Featuring an unexpectedly soulful performance from David Arquette, and a cast that also includes Mira Sorvino, Steve Buscemi, Natasha Lyonne, Allan Corduner, David Chandler, and Daniel Benzali, The Grey Zone admirably navigates the moral murk, as the characters' introspection is regularly interrupted by their captors' persecutions. The atmosphere makes a deeper impression than the drama, which might represent a failing on Nelson's part, but could it be avoided? His film portrays the pinholes of light in a place of otherwise unrelenting darkness.

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