Byline: Gary Arnold, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
"The Grey Zone" is unlikely to be mistaken for mass entertainment, but it commands considerable respect for sustaining historical evocation of the harrowing kind - terminally harrowing, as a matter of fact. The setting is the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in October 1944, and the intention of writer-director Tim Blake Nelson, expanding his own theater piece of 1996, is to immerse us in a charnel-house atmosphere and state of mind.
The episodes unfold on the eve of a futile uprising planned by a group of largely Hungarian Jewish inmates who have purchased a few months' worth of better rations and conditions by consenting to brutally usher new prisoners into the gas chambers and then dispose of their corpses and ashes. (The typical Sonderkommando life span was four months.)
Mr. Nelson depicts these duties with incisive but graphic and excruciating candor, incorporating cruelties that range from summary beatings and executions to the cleaning, filling and activation of a gas chamber and then the collection of hair and gold fillings from the victims.
Eventually, the slaughtered are reduced to ashes in an environment that always seems to be choked with sensory impressions of smoke, dust, toil and squalor. The most lasting single impression from the movie may be the infernal spectacle of work gangs repeatedly feeding and then emptying the ovens.
The title derives from a chapter in Primo Levi's memoir of an abbreviated Auschwitz captivity, "The Drowned and the Saved." One of the subplots dramatizes a strange occurrence discussed by Levi: the miraculous survival of an adolescent girl in a heap of gas-chamber victims.
Preserving her life becomes a quixotic obsession for several of the doomed squad members, beginning with David Arquette as Hoffman, who discovers her alive, and extending to a camp physician, Allan Corduner as the authentic Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, whose memoirs also supplied Mr. Nelson with certain episodes.
Dr. Nyiszli, a Hungarian pathologist, was spared from execution so he could assist the notorious Dr. Joseph Mengele in his monstrous experiments, particularly those involving his fixation with the physiology of twins. One of the more effective episodes pretends to eavesdrop on a typical Nyiszli-Mengele consultation.
Arguably unwieldy with subplots, the movie also attempts to honor the desperate heroism of a group of female inmates, exemplified by Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne, who have abetted the conspiracy by smuggling ammunition and explosives into the camp. They are part of a slave-labor force employed at a munitions factory near Birkenau.
Mr. Nelson never contrives a foolproof structure of suspense and tension while keeping tabs on the approaching revolt, the sufferings of the women and then the discovery of the surviving girl, which revives an irrational protective impulse in hard-bitten and self-loathing men. …