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Grey Zone, The (2002)

 

Starring: David Arquette, Mira Sorvino, Steve Buscemi
Director:
Tim Blake Nelson

Rating: R

Studio: Lions Gate Films

Review Posted: 10.18.02

Spoilers: Minor

Rating: 3/4

 

By Sara M. Fetters.

 

"Powerful, Thought-Provoking Grey Zone Packs a Punch"

 

I think Iíve discovered why Tim Blake Nelson takes all of those wacky surreal roles in films like Minority Report and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Itís to counteract the aftereffects of his directorial efforts like Eye of God and O. They are dark, thoroughly uncompromising works of a filmmaker completely fearless to take an audience into dank recesses of the human condition.

 

Now comes The Grey Zone, easily Nelsonís most dire and depressing film. Based upon his play of the same name, the film is based on a true story that took place during one of historyís darkest hours. Unknown to many, much of the grittier (and unseemly) work at Auschwitz during World War II was done by a group of Jewish prisoners known as the Sonderkommandos. For a four-month period, they were given a reprieve from the gas chambers and allowed one or two luxuries in exchange for preparing other prisoners for the gas chamber and then cleaning up there remains afterwards.

 

In late 1944, the 12th Sonderkommando unit revolted against their Nazi captors, bringing to a halt one of Aushwitzís inhuman killing machines. The Grey Zone begins with this revolt still in the planning stages. Hungarians working in crematorium one and Poles working in crematorium three strike an uneasy alliance to bomb their work facilities, hoping to cease the production of human death at the death camp. But there is much friction and animosity between the groups, yet the Polish Abramowics (Steve Buscemi, every bit as good here as he was in last yearís Ghost World) refuses to give up hope and pushes the two sides to work together.

 

The Grey Zone is not an easy sit. Much of it is didactic and the filmís roots as a play are all too noticeable. Still, I couldnít take my eyes off the screen. Nelson never strays from the horror inherent in the story, and he refuses to apologize for characters that essentially kill their fellow prisoner all for an extra four months of life. Where films like Life is Beautiful tend to pull their punches, The Grey Zone is so dark you feel as if soot from the fires of Auschwitz is clinging to your clothes.

 

Aside from Buscemi, who is reliably excellent, other actors give some of their finest work here. Most notably, David Arquette redeems himself after See Spot Run and those unbelievably annoying AT&T commercials. His character becomes more and more unhinged as the film progresses, and his final denouement is one of the more heartrending put on film in quite some time. Also quite good are Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite) and Natasha Lyonne (American Pie) as female internees working the munitions line at the camp, smuggling gunpowder out to the Sonderkommando conspirators.

 

Like O and Eye of God, The Grey Zone is not an easy movie to watch, or like, for that matter. It feels long and pretentious at times, but I have the feeling that has more to do with the weighty subject matter more than anything else. It also isnít a film fit for light entertainment on a rainy weekend afternoon. But it is a strong, unsparing look at a moment in history that should not be forgotten, made by a director unafraid to look the scarring bleakness of the situation squarely in the eye. For filmgoers looking for something more, they could do a lot worse then turn here.


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