[Screen It]

(2002) (Allan Corduner, Harvey Keitel) (R)

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Drama: Various WWII era death camp inmates, who've agreed to assist the Nazis in exchange for a few more months of life, attempt an uprising against their captors.
It's the fall of 1944 and various Jewish prisoners at the Nazi death camps have become known as the Sonderkommandos. In exchange for better quarters, slightly better treatment from the guards and a few extra months of life, the likes of Hoffman (DAVID ARQUETTE), Schlermer (DANIEL BENZALI), Abramowics (STEVE BUSCEMI) and Rosenthal (DAVID CHANDLER) persuade new inmates that they're going to be okay before leading them to the gas chambers and then processing their corpses in the massive crematoriums.

Then there's Dr. Nyiszli (ALLAN CORDUNER), a Hungarian physician who's been assigned to do scientific autopsies for Josef Mengele in exchange for even better treatment. Something of a confidant to camp commander Muhsfeldt (HARVEY KEITEL), Nyiszli is hated and mistrusted by his fellow inmates. That's not only due to his actions, but also because they and others, including Dina (MIRA SORVINO) and Rosa (NATASHA LYONNE) who work in a nearby munitions factory, are plotting an uprising that they hope will save others' lives.

As they go about their daily activities and the related moral dilemma, the discovery of a young girl who survived the gas chamber puts their plans in jeopardy. Debating whether to protect her, the inmates do what they can to survive and set their plan into motion.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
When people hear of wolves and other animals gnawing off their own limbs to escape traps, they can't imagine being so desperate to undertake such a dramatic measure. That, of course, is because people imagine they'd figure a way out of such a predicament or that others would eventually rescue them. Then there's the fact that most people have not faced any sort of dire, life or death situations.

There are those who have, however, and who've had to deal with the internal and external repercussions of their self-preservative acts. One of the more amazing yet disturbing historical cases concerned the Sonderkommandos of WWII.

They were certain prisoners of Nazi Germany who elected to assist their captors in their death camp operations in exchange for having their lives spared. Most such reprieves were short-lived and the prisoners knew that, but they obviously recognized that even just a few extra weeks of life were better than none at all.

On such prisoner who did survive was Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jewish physician who assisted the notorious Josef Mengele in his gruesome experiments and "research" conducted on prisoners and their remains. His memoirs inspired Tim Blake Nelson (director of "O," actor in "Minority Report" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") to examine and portray such historical and philosophical matters in his stage play, "The Grey Zone."

The actor-turned filmmaker has now adapted his play - named for the nebulous zone between life and death for those inmates and their moral quandary regarding their actions - into a feature film of the same name.

Notwithstanding "Life is Beautiful," it's next to impossible to create a dramatic WWII death camp film that's not powerful, disturbing and uncomfortable to watch, and that's essentially the case here. In displaying the unspeakable horrors, the film unflinchingly shows the horrific and impersonal treatment and murders of the prisoners, as well as the ever present disposal of bodies via the crematoriums. That, coupled with emotional distress on the part of the surviving and reluctant collaborators makes for an unpleasant viewing experience, particularly in regards to how everything ultimately plays out.

Beyond that, the film focuses on the prisoners' last ditch efforts to disrupt the genocidal workings via sabotage as well as their hiding of a girl who somehow managed to survive being gassed in the infamous showers. It's actually welcomed to see such prisoners actively trying to make a difference rather than being the usual hopeless sheep as often portrayed in similar movies. All of that, however, leads to more tension as they try to keep their efforts secret with the repercussions of being caught equaling certain death.

Parts of the film are certainly riveting, and one clearly feels for the prisoners and their uniquely disturbing predicament. Allan Corduner ("Joe Gould's Secret," "Topsy-Turvy") does a good job playing the doctor whose guilt of working with Mengele in exchange for his family's safety - as well as being ostracized by the other prisoners for doing so - must have been overwhelming.

The likes of Daniel Benzali ("Screwed," "Murder at 1600"), Steve Buscemi ("Domestic Disturbance," "Ghost World"), David Chandler (various TV shows) and, yes, even David Arquette ("Eight Legged Freaks," the "Scream" movies) are good to okay as various other prisoners. Mira Sorvino ("Summer of Sam," "At First Sight") and Natasha Lyonne ("Slums of Beverly Hills," the "American Pie" films) show up in a separate but related subplot focusing on the female prisoners, while Harvey Keitel ("U-571," "Pulp Fiction") makes for a credible and formidable German officer.

If there's one major artistic complaint about the film beyond the unflinching and unsavory portrayal of such events, however, it's that it still possess too much of the rhythm and pacing of the stage play's plot and dialogue. While Nelson has opened up the production by adding more interior and exterior locales, the performers still sound like they're on the stage.

That does give the film something of a surreal aura that, when coupled with an early bout of being fragmented, is distracting enough to prevent the film from being as completely devastating as it could have been.

It's still quite disturbing and depressing, however, and makes one ponder how people can treat others with such uncaring viciousness. Clearly not for all viewers, "The Grey Zone" is a thought-provoking but not quite believably realistic look at yet another saga of WWII era genocide. It rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed August 12, 2002 / Posted October 25, 2002

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