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January 7, 2001

FILM

'The Grey Zone': A Holocaust Horror Story Without a Schindler

By KRISTIN HOHENADEL

OFIA, Bulgaria -- IN the parking lot of Bojana Studios, in the autumnal shadow of the Vitosha Mountains, 200 Bulgarian movie extras, ages 5 to 80, gathered. Some told jokes and ate cheese sandwiches; others kicked around a soccer ball. All were waiting for the signal to remove their clothing and pile on top of one another in a recreated gas chamber and hold their breath like the dead.

It was a mid-October afternoon near the end of production on "The Grey Zone," the writer and director Tim Blake Nelson's dramatic story of the Sonderkommandos special squads of Jews who processed corpses from the No. 1 crematorium at Birkenau. Those who were drafted into the units 12 in all, which operated until the fall of 1944 - were shot if they refused. Many of those who joined killed themselves shortly thereafter.

Others bought themselves an extra four months of life by shuttling prisoners into the changing rooms, picking through their clothes and possessions, hosing blood and feces from the bodies and from the walls of the gas chambers, stripping the dead of hair and gold fillings and conveying them into the ovens with specially designed metal prods and pokers. In exchange for assisting in the extermination of fellow Jews, the Sonderkommandos were granted privileges unavailable to the other inmates: after their 14-hour shifts, they would repair to their quarters above the crematorium, where they smoked and drank and read books and ate caviar and sausages the rewards for their toil.

"I thought if there is ever a moral dilemma, that's it," Mr. Nelson said in his tidy dressing room here at midnight, over a can of Bulgarian beer. "You couldn't contrive anything more extreme and this isn't contrived, it's true. I grew up going to synagogue every Saturday, Sunday school every Sunday and Hebrew school up to four times a week, and I never heard about the Sonderkommando."

He first read about the Sonderkommandos four years ago, in an essay by Primo Levi called "The Grey Zone." "When I read it, I was an able-bodied man in his 30's. That could have been me. So it also became very personal," said Mr. Nelson, 36, who is also an actor.

Writing "The Grey Zone" was not Mr. Nelson's first attempt to explore the Holocaust. He spent a year and a half writing a play about his mother's family's escape from Germany shortly before Kristallnacht, then put it in a drawer. "I thought, `Here is the same old survivor's tale from the Holocaust.' On a subject which has been so mined and about which artists across the whole spectrum of media have made really effective works if you're not going to say something new, do not touch it, do not bother."

His play of "The Grey Zone," which was directed by Doug Hughes and produced in New York at MCC Theater in 1996, explored the less familiar moral dilemma of Jews who were implicated in the work of the Nazis deprived, as Levi pointed out, of the solace of innocence; dead before dying; robbed of their souls. The play explores the specious medical "experiments" that the Hungarian doctor Miklos Nyiszli conducted on the corpses of twins, the failed rebellion of the last Sonderkommando unit in October 1944, and the pivotal discovery of a teenage girl still alive in the gas chamber by one of the Sonderkommando.

The theatrical production used stark sound and light to hint at the horror offstage."I knew a film version couldn't do that, because a camera can go anywhere," said Mr. Nelson, who began writing plays as an acting student at the Juilliard School. While he has directed a movie adaptation of his play "Eye of God" (1997) and another film, "O," to be released later this year, Mr. Nelson did not attend film school; he said he had learned what he knew about directing from watching directors like Terrence Malick and Joel Coen at work. During the filming of "The Thin Red Line" (1998), in which Mr. Nelson played Private Tillis, "I had a lot of time on set to be able to watch Terrence Malick, and I read his script very carefully," he said. "This began to teach me how I could write and direct `The Grey Zone' as a film."

Like the play, his screenplay had no heroes and a dizzying cast of characters. After persuading the producing partners Pamela Koffler and Christine Vachon of Killer Films ("Boys Don't Cry") to sign on, and after Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, Steve Buscemi and David Arquette had accepted roles, the Israeli production company Millennium/Nu Image Films agreed to invest $5 million. Millennium/Nu Image has made 15 movies, most of them action films, at the formerly state-run Bojana Studios over the last three years. One partner in the the company, Avi Lerner, who has produced close to 200 movies, said that he was in the business of making films, with an emphasis on the word "business." But " `The Grey Zone' has nothing to do with money," he said in a telephone interview. "This is the first - and only - time I am making a movie that has nothing to do with financial considerations."

Mr. Lerner was born in 1947 in Israel, where he grew up surrounded by survivors of the Holocaust. "I never could understand why the Jews did nothing to fight against the Nazis," he said. "Why not resist? Why just go like sheep to the gas chamber?" Making "The Grey Zone," he said, was a way of addressing the unresolved question of what he would have done if faced with a Sonderkommando's impossible choice. "There have been lots of films about the Holocaust, but most movies about the Jewish people are positive," he said. "It's scary to bring up this part of history. I know it will cause a lot of debate and controversy, especially from the Jewish community. But I'm ready to face it."

Mr. Keitel, who is also an executive producer, plays Muhsfeldt, a midlevel Nazi functionary. "Tim Blake Nelson wrote a screenplay that's inspired and one that reaches down in our humanness and our collective conscience in a very profound way," he said by telephone recently. "This is a question that must always be explored. Our children deserve it to be."

IF audiences will be surprised to hear Mr. Keitel speaking with a German accent, they will also discover a darker side of the comedic actor David Arquette, cast here as Hoffman, the Sonderkommando who finds the girl alive. "Hoffman is a character that's full of shame," Mr. Nelson said. "And I think shame is the basis of David's humor; it's always about him trying to be someone he isn't, and the comic tension is in the distance between the two realities. It's been exciting to watch an actor who's known for something gradually dispense with what he's come to trust works for him to simplify and deepen his choices." "I've had a lot of doubts about myself and if I could get in touch with certain emotions and really let my walls down," said Mr. Arquette, dressed in a sullied prison uniform, his teeth tinted a yellowish brown. "There's so many situations in this film where I really feel revealed. I've been a few times as emotional as I've gotten in this movie in my real life, but I haven't done that a lot," he said, before adding with a self-conscious chuckle, "because it was so painful." Mr. Arquette credited Mr. Nelson with stretching his emotional range. Those who worked with Mr. Nelson described him as intelligent, meticulous, decisive and supportive - "a dream actor's director," as Ms. Sorvino put it.

"He had a very clear-cut overview of what he wanted out of every scene," she said by telephone, "but he gave you room to give your performance." The actor David Chandler, who portrays a different character in the movie than he did in the stage version, said: "He's tenacious of getting what he needs, but he does it with absolute care and sensitivity, finesse." Like many of those who worked on the film, Mr. Chandler said he had had disturbing dreams since arriving in Bulgaria, in late August. But no sooner had he explained how the daily problem-solving and task-oriented nature of filmmaking had provided an emotional shield than he burst into tears as he described watching a scene in the crematorium: "I saw on the monitor this shot going up this naked woman's legs, up to this guy pulling a gold filling out of her mouth. It was like a vision of hell. It just took your breath away. I don't think many people have seen anything like that."

The director of photography, Russell Fine, shot most of "The Grey Zone" with a hand-held camera. "A film like `Schindler's List' does this beautiful photography," he said. "We're not going to beat that quality. So we've given it an intentionally rough, hand-held look; made the images less romantic and less heroic. We want it to feel like you're there."

The British production designer Maria Djurkovic concentrated on hunting down period cigarettes and medicine bottles and studying architectural plans from Auschwitz, giving the film sets a sickening realism. Bulgaria's inexpensive labor and materials enabled the filmmakers to build two model crematoriums in the village of Giten, 45 minutes outside Sofia, using bricks and concrete, tile roofs and working ovens with cast- iron doors. The lack of strict health and labor standards allowed them to burn hundreds of rubber corpses and to hire 800 extras at $10 a day to recreate a scene in which the passengers from a transport filed into what looked like a large brick farmhouse with a welcoming hearth, serenaded by musicians playing a Strauss waltz. The 200 female extras who were willing to cut off their hair and those who agreed to be filmed naked earned $50 a day in a country where the average monthly salary is less than $100.

Mr. Nelson said it was particularly challenging to convey to the extras what he had read in every account of the Sonderkommandos: that after a while, burning corpses became a job like anything else. "I find myself telling them, `Don't mope,' " said Mr. Nelson, standing in the empty furnace room, which, with its 15 ovens and ash-covered walls, did not look like a film set about to be torn down. "A lot of Holocaust films have a lot of moping, but that's not what this film is about. It's not a movie about mournful, flogged, tortured Jews. I don't want to show the familiar images of Jews as victims. There aren't any Jews praying in this movie, weeping submissively.I don't have them using Yiddish words." He wanted to make the film while feeling very much of the period immediate, he said. "So no one can say, `Oh, that's that time, that's those people.' "

Mr. Nelson insisted that his film would be as much a study of the corruptions of power, the danger of institutional thinking and the potential results of the unexamined life as another sad story about the Holocaust. In a 24-page memo distributed to the cast and crew, he said that he wanted to take the viewer on a "cold," "unsentimental" and "fast" ride through every sinister machination of the No. 1 crematorium at Birkenau.

At the time, "there were bidding wars between architectural firms and furnace firms; somebody decided to put in a canal so bodies could be moved really efficiently in front of the ovens," he said, his eyes bloodshot from too little sleep. "Somebody designed a system by which the human fat could drain back into the central portion of the fire, so they would have to use less fuel," he went on. "I don't think people know that. Why would you ever think that? It's the kind of thing that you wouldn't want to think about. You can vilify Hitler, but these buildings could only exist because of tens of thousands of people and all of their combined decisions toward one end, and because of the casual complicity of millions of others. And that's the gray area where most of us live, all of us. I do."

But if his film promises to explore every dark corner of the death factories at Birkenau, it leaves out the gassing itself. "That one moment felt crass," he said. "This movie isn't about provoking people or shocking people; if that's what it ends up doing, then I have failed." MR. NELSON appears to be a man of such earnestness and intelligence that it is difficult to mistrust his intentions. "There are people who have the utterly justifiable opinion that something like the inside of a gas chamber after a gassing should not be mined for artistic expression, if only out of respect for those who perished," he said.

"Others would say don't do it because it's impossible to depict; you are just simply bound to fail. Most people are going to know a great deal about the Holocaust. They've seen `Schindler's List'; I cannot repeat any of those images." One of the haunting images of Mr. Nelson's film is of the young girl found at the bottom of a pile of corpses in the gas chamber. "When the gas was rising, all anybody ever wanted to do was save themselves," Mr. Nelson said, "and the weak, the young and the very old were trampled. That is a fact. The movie is always kind of addressing that in one way or another."

The film does not yet have a distributor, and the filmmakers expressed the hope that audiences won't shy away, even knowing they are going to be in for a tough ride. "I wanted a happy ending," Mr. Lerner admitted. "Even though the uprising was a failure, why not make a heroic story about the one guy who did get away? But Tim didn't want any heroes.

"He didn't want to compromise. I let him direct the movie the way he wanted because I trust him, even if many times as a businessman I can't understand his mind."

Mr. Lerner admitted that this skittishness had him watching the dailies, something he doesn't usually do. "I'm sorry to say this, but I couldn't watch some of it because it was so strong," he said. "I really hope people will be brave enough to go and watch the movie." Kristin Hohenadel, who is based in Paris, writes about film.


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