In one of the many poetically intense and disturbing moments in The Grey Zone, a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz, played by David Arquette, stares into space with terror and guilt as he listens to the screams coming from the gas chamber. Seconds later, he hears a sound even more terrible — the tap-tap-tapping of dying prisoners as they claw helplessly against the walls. That’s a moment to give you a shudder, but then Tim Blake Nelson, who wrote and directed ”The Grey Zone,” goes further. He follows Arquette and a handful of his fellow prisoners, who are part of a special group known as the Sonderkommando, into the deathly chamber, where they confront a vision of horror: the walls smeared with handprints, the corpses lying on top of each other in puddles of blood.
At that moment, it dawns on you that no dramatic feature has ever come quite this close to the matter-of-fact ugliness of the Nazi crimes. ”The Grey Zone” is a Holocaust drama immersed in the mechanics of mass murder, yet nothing in the movie feels exploitative or unnecessarily graphic. The Sonderkommando have made the excruciating decision to work for the Nazis in exchange for special privileges and perhaps four added months of survival. Nelson based the film on his 1996 stage play about the historic revolt staged at Auschwitz on Oct. 7, 1944, when a Sonderkommando unit blew up two of the crematoriums. If some of the dialogue has an overly clipped, David Mamet edge, the film’s fearless and unflinching detail is matched by its subtle psychological force as a study of what went on in the camps. The performances of Harvey Keitel as an alcoholic Nazi, Allan Corduner as a soft-spoken Jewish pathologist, and David Chandler as a conscience-choked Sonderkommando leader are woven around a haunting truth: that in the hell of Auschwitz, the relationship between Nazis and Jews wasn’t always one of detachment but, rather, a gruesome expression of the intimacy of death.