When Tim Blake Nelson stumbled upon Primo Levi’s essay ”The Grey Zone,” about the Sonderkommandos, a group of concentration-camp inmates forced to work in the crematoriums, the actor-filmmaker says, ”It seemed to be a predicament…more quintessentially human than any dilemma I had encountered in literature or history, because it pits the will to live against a person’s very humanity.”
After spending two years researching and writing, Nelson (who directed the ”Othello” update ”O” and costarred in ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) received a budget of under $5 million from indie production company Millennium and began casting. But hiring ubiquitous goof David Arquette as one of the prisoners was not an easy decision. ”You pair a Holocaust movie and David Arquette,” Nelson says slowly. ”I had to think about it for a month: ‘Will an audience be able to get past this?’ It took me a while.” The cast and crew spent several months filming in Bulgaria, where Nelson had replicas built of two crematoriums, a furnace room, and a gas chamber. ”The physical conditions were as difficult as the emotional ones,” he says. ”I didn’t want anyone to accuse the film of shirking away.” As for the brutality of the subject matter, Nelson adds, ”The movie is hopefully comprised of images which are impossible to look at at times, but necessary to see.”
THE LOWDOWN ”Eye of God,” Nelson’s first feature, was impressive; this time, the degree of difficulty is much higher.