Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone seems destined to inhabit a limbo as indeterminate as the one its title evokes. A Holocaust movie of unrelenting bleakness, it is also somewhat anomalous, at once abstract and gut-wrenching. This crepuscular work offers the most realistic depiction of the infernal workings of a Nazi death camp ever seen in a fiction film. For all the groundbreaking verisimilitude, and a couple of raves aside, the movie has elicited little more than indifference in its short run.
The neglect is a shame. While hardly perfect, the movie nonetheless merits serious thought. The quadruple-hyphenate Nelson — he wrote, directed, co-produced, and co-edited — is mostly known to audiences as the endearing dolt Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. He has directed two other films, a little seen indie called Eye of God (1997) and the Othello update, O (2001). For his third film, Nelson has given his ambition free rein — and overreached. The movie’s flaws notwithstanding, I couldn’t shake the tenacious intelligence behind it.
Based on a play of the same name by Nelson, The Grey Zone tells the story of the Sonderkommandos, squads of Jews in the death camps who were charged with doing the dirty work: presiding over the inmates’ march into the “showers,” loading the dead into the ovens, shoveling the ash and bones of the newly incinerated. In return for their services, these Jews lived a lavish lifestyle by camp standards and were given a reprieve of up to four months before being exterminated themselves. There are several narrative strands strewn across this dismal landscape — a secret plan for an uprising, a girl who survives gassing, a ruthless search by the Nazis for conspirators among the inmates.
Nelson based his play on two sources: Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jewish doctor who assisted Mengele’s ghastly experiments, and an essay in Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved. As its title suggests, the movie is interested in posing all sorts of questions that defy simple answers. The moral limbo the characters occupy seems exclusive to something as unfathomable as the Holocaust. Does saving one life matter in the face of the extermination of millions? Is there such a thing as heroism amid such inexorable horror? What does survival mean in such a setting?
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Nelson revealed himself as more interested in intellectual provocation than in emotional engagement — a predilection that manifests itself in the movie’s dialogue. The film’s interrogation of the moral conundrums that its characters face takes the form of a stagy script that’s too declarative by half. The Grey Zone may be the most unsparing rendering of the Holocaust ever made, but Nelson’s screenplay laces the horror with unnecessary stabs at poetry.
Even as many ideas are set down in front of the audience with a portentous thud, some themes come through with a clarity that borders on profundity. A particularly compelling idea is the variance in suffering; the movie argues that while the hellishness of Auschwitz may have been absolute, the responses to it were not monolithic. Some of the Sonderkommando never wish to survive their experience, their guilt too great. Others are defiant, even dreaming of escape, of a life bearing witness. (“I hope I live till I’m 90!” exclaims one.) The value of noble acts is questioned, as is the complaisant kowtowing to a ruthless enemy.
Nelson plunges us into this inferno in media res. The jolt doesn’t just come from the abruptness — greeting us is the addled face of David Arquette. The movie has come in for particularly harsh criticism for its big name (and well-fed) cast. Certainly Arquette, Mira Sorvino, Steve Buscemi, Natasha Lyonne, and Harvey Keitel (brandishing an unfortunate accent) do not embarrass themselves. Their problem is that they’re recognizable — they ruin the spell, remind you that this is artifice. It’s telling that the most convincing performances are given by relative unknowns like Allan Corduner, Daniel Benzali, and David Chandler.
Strained though its script may be, and distracting though the cast is, The Grey Zone is a film of undeniable visceral impact. Nelson’s unsparing depiction of camp life is so brutal as to be physically upsetting. Russell Lee Fine’s baleful cinematography captures a world of horrors suggestive and terrifyingly blunt. Fires, ashes, and smokestacks dot the barren landscape; inside the buildings, the images are even more nightmarish. The movie unflinchingly captures the gears of the death machinery churning: We see the gassing of fresh “cargo,” the loading of corpses onto carts and ovens, the tortures perpetrated on suspected conspirators.
Some critics have raised the point — and it’s not an uncommon point with regard to Holocaust movies — that Nelson’s meticulous reenactment somehow trivializes the real thing. Indeed, the issue of Holocaust representation in popular media will likely remain in its own grey zone for a long time, a question with no easy answers. The Holocaust still resides in a privileged place in our cultural consciousness — it is, per Adorno, beyond poetry. While such a sentiment is persuasive, there is also something to the counterargument that it’s a form of unwitting censorship. Should some things really be beyond artistic expression? Isn’t art a form of bearing witness?
For all its failings, The Grey Zone does not come across as an exploitative project. Some movies have certainly employed the Holocaust’s horrors dubiously. Think of the suspense-generating tactics of Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil (1998) or the all-around vulgarity of Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties (1976). Other movies, though nobler (or more good-hearted, at any rate), have nonetheless succumbed to the demands of narrative. Though hardly in the same category, Schindler’s List (1993) and Life is Beautiful (1997) share similar qualities: a weakness for melodrama, an affirmative spirit, a focus on heroism. No doubt it was those very qualities that contributed to their commercial and critical successes, and my own initial — and since complicated — enthusiasm.
In The Grey Zone, Nazi horrors are never used to push audience buttons. Nelson’s high-minded effort to ask weighty moral questions may itself be unsuccessful, but it is never wrong-headed. The desolation at the heart of his movie is implacable and unstinting — there is no room for redemption here. That I don’t ever want to see another frame of this punishing movie again — a feeling I don’t hold for Spielberg’s and Benigni’s movies — may ultimately be the fairest measure of its integrity and worth.