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Worst-Case Scenario: David Arquette stars in 'The Grey Zone.'

Mengele's Ashes

'The Grey Zone': Don't say you weren't warned

By Richard von Busack

THERE'S LESS leeway to go wrong in a Holocaust film than in almost any kind of movie. Director Tim Blake Nelson is brave to try his hand at this melancholy task in The Grey Zone. Unfortunately, one lesson of the Holocaust is that bravery won't save you.

The Tulsa-born Nelson makes a living in redneck parts. He was the frog-yokel in O Brother! Where Art Thou?, and the pot-smoking buddy who blackmails Jennifer Aniston into sex in The Good Girl. But he's actually Jewish, the son of a mother who fled Germany in the mid-'30s.

The impressive production design includes an 80 percent scale reconstruction of Auschwitz, built from Nazi blueprints and erected in Bulgaria. Nelson's reproduction is quite thorough. It's an impressive and horrible illusion, from the blood on the walls, to the flaccid limbs of the corpses waiting to be burned, to the constant return to shots of black smoke and sparks rising from the crematorium chimneys. All recur in the memoirs Nelson used as background, Dr. Miklos Nyiszli's Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account. Nelson focuses on the 12th Sonderkommandos and their panicky revolt against the German guards in October 1944. These were the Jews recruited to oversee the peaceful delivery of new arrivals to the camp. The Sonder--it means "Special"--kommandos played music and sweet-talked the fearful new arrivals into the gas chambers. These captives had duty for four months. Then they burned out, and then they were burned up.

The recurring character in The Grey Zone is Nyiszli, a Hungarian doctor recruited from the new arrivals at Auschwitz by the infamous Dr. Mengele (Henry Stram). Thus he spent nearly a year as assistant pathologist to the ultimate Nazi mad doctor. But Nyiszli isn't the narrative voice of the film. The film darts back to vignettes with the other prisoners, a group of mixed Indiewood stars. These include Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne in showy cameos as two sacrificial girls; Steve Buscemi as the cynical camp fixer, and David Arquette, as Hoffman, whose troublesome humanity interferes with his job as a Sonderkommando.

In the press notes, Nelson comments that his vision of Auschwitz is a break with the usual Hollywood reverence, noting the "crass and profane" qualities of these Sonderkommandos. "They didn't have time for politeness. They didn't wait for one another to complete sentences." What's most taxing here is that the characters in The Grey Zone certainly do wait for sentences to finish. The Grey Zone was a play first, and it hasn't been opened up, despite the settings. It's a quilt of modern playwriting styles: sometimes Mamet's games of pingpong with brass balls, sometimes Beckett's ash-heap curtness, sometimes Harold Pinter pauses: the sound of actors swallowing their own tongues.

Reading Nyiszli's memoirs you get a radically different picture of the camps. Stram's performance as the doctor is clammy, which is right; Nyiszli describes himself as cold and correct. But there was more to him than a dead face. The Hungarian never was a monster, but he was occasionally a scientist. He was disciplined enough that, even in a death camp, he found interest--maybe "distraction" is the word--in the autopsies he performed. Nyiszli writes that he wanted to bear witness to what went on--just as the other Sonderkommandos felt it was their duty to get the secret of Auschwitz out to the world, which was part of the reason for the riot of October 1944. The end titles claim that after the war Nyiszli "never practiced medicine again." According to his memoirs, he gave up surgery, but he did keep up his work as a doctor.

Why pick on these details? Here's why. If The Grey Zone had that naturalism Nelson sought, the film would have been nearly unwatchable. But it would have been hard to dismiss. The thick staginess of The Grey Zone is as dismal as only failed poetry can be. The film's point is that we are ashes, ashes watching ashes--we're dead already. The doomed rebellion is meant to reflect our own struggle against death. Auschwitz represents an unforgettable part of the human condition. But it doesn't represent the totality of the human condition. Moviegoers know this and need not feel guilty if they'd prefer to see something else.

The Grey Zone (R; 108 minutes), written, directed, produced and edited by Tim Blake Nelson, photographed by Russell Lee Fine, with music by Jeff Danna and starring David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne, opens Friday at the Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the October 24-30, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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