Old 09-27-2009, 12:13 PM
Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone

The Grey Zone (2001)

Let's face it, there's probably never going to be a Holocaust film nearly as great as Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," but that doesn't mean there can't be other decent attempts. For example, "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" discussed the terrible event from an interesting viewpoint, but sadly had an unbelievable ending. In 2001, Tim Blake Nelson wrote and directed "The Grey Zone," based off his own play, and the result makes you feel it throughout almost every scene.

The film opens by filling us in on a special group of Jews in the concentration camps called a Sonderkomando, who would help usher other Jews into the gas chambers, telling them they are merely taking a shower, and would then dispose of the bodies after they were gassed. For this work, they would receive privileges (food, wine, other items found on the dead) unheard of in the camps.

We follow a group of these workers including Hoffman (David Arquette), Max Rosenthal (David Chandler), and 'Hesch' Abramowics (Steve Buscemi) as they plan to blow up the crematoriums and possibly escape. Later on in the film, another plot unfolds as Hoffman discovers that one of the girls (Kamelia Grigorova) that had been sent into the gas chamber survived. This only complicates things as they plan to execute their revolt before their group is replaced.

The big problem with "The Grey Zone" was its lack of focus. There were about four different stories going on at the same time, dividing up the time so much that it made it hard to really care about any of them. Aside from the main plot to blow up the crematoriums, there was also a side plot of some Jewish women trying to smuggle some gun powder from a factory and then being interrogated about it.

Another plot involved a Jewish doctor, Miklos Nyiszli (Allan Corduner), who was given special treatment for helping another doctor perform medical experiments on his fellow Jews. These privileges included his life being spared, as well as that of his wife and daughter. He is kept under guard throughout the film by SS-Oberscharfuhrer Eric Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel), who wants any information about the revolt that is told to the doctor.

For a film about the Holocaust, it felt strangely devoid of emotion. There was even at least one scene where the emotion was ridiculously over the top, though this could just be attributed to really bad acting. Speaking of the acting, while I normally enjoy the fantastic work of Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi, every time they showed up on screen, it was like being reminded that I was watching a movie.

Buscemi felt like he had absolutely no place in a film like this, but even more so with Keitel. As SS-Oberscharfuhrer Eric Muhsfeldt, he tries to put on a really cheesy German accent while trying to hide his normal voice, which still came through loud and clear, making him sound incredibly ridiculous.

As I mentioned, most of the scenes feel emotionally flat, which is probably because most of the dialogue consists of the characters arguing with one another instead of better plotting the revolt to ensure its success. That was another problem. No one seemed to know what they were doing when the time of the revolt finally came. All that talking and arguing and yet, they were still not coordinated, though some goals were certainly accomplished.

Most of the scenes also had the feeling like they were supposed to be on stage. I guess Nelson decided not to change very much when he attempted to make the leap from stage to screen, but this also adds to the lack of emotion. With a much larger canvas, he could have done so much more with the material. What was the point of building a near perfect model of the concentration camp at Auschwitz II just to not do very much with it?

The last few minutes of the film try to pick it up a little, but the mostly uncoordinated effort is reminiscent of the way the film had been going up to that point. We are left with a very bleak film that tries to be too heavy handed, but doesn't accomplish this by a long shot with all the prisoners looking well-fed and arguing with each other instead of coming together to accomplish their goals. It's a valiant effort from Nelson, but he just couldn't make the leap. 2/4 stars.
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