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All-Star Cast Tells Story of True World War II Incident in <i>The Grey Zone</i> - 2002-10-23


A true incident from the World War II Nazi death camps is the inspiration for a somber and powerful dramatic film written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Alan Silverman has a look at The Grey Zone.

At Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland, the Nazi Germans carried out, with deadly efficiency, their campaign to destroy European Jewry. While they employed local Poles as guards at the notorious death camp, the Nazis forced special squads of prisoners the Sonderkommando to lure their fellow Jews into the gas chambers and then load the corpses into the crematoria ovens.

The Sonderkommandos were granted food, drink and other privileges in exchange for a few extra months of life. Faced with certain death, however, one group staged a futile revolt in October 1944, using smuggled gunpowder to blow up one of the crematoria.

The ensemble cast of The Grey Zone includes David Arquette as a young Sonderkommando trying to find some shred of hope.

"There was a feeling that we were doing something important, that it was a film of merit and wasn't just some trivial story," says Mr. Arquette. "This is something that had a very specific point of view. It wasn't just about Nazis and Jews, it was about what man is capable of, how dark it can get, how we can be reduced to animal-like behavior and worse."

Mira Sorvino plays a woman prisoner who works at a nearby munitions plant and helps smuggle explosives for the doomed revolt. Although it's set almost 60 years ago, the Oscar-winning actress believes The Grey Zone depicts a moral dilemma relevant today.

"Just in the 1990s alone there were genocides all over the world with millions of people killed... and we don't relate because we see it on CNN and say 'Oh that's really sad what's happening over there. Oh, what's happening tonight on [the fictional show] The Sopranos?' You get somehow inured to it, maybe because there is so much of it and maybe because television and films have somehow made it palatably distant," says Ms. Sorvino. "It's some image passing before us that sort of stimulates us, but we don't feel compelled, humanly, to do anything about it. I think what this film does is says ' this situation was comprised of individuals just like you and me.' it's talking about not ignoring the horror and reality and somehow making yourself personally accountable for things that are going on and making choices about whether you have the courage to act according to an overlying principle that has meaning to you, or a love, or a cause." she adds.

"What the Holocaust setting does for this film, which is addressing questions that are more human than Jewish," explains director Tim Blake Nelson, "is it furnishes the audience, through its historical accuracy, with a level of credibility."

Mr. Nelson originally staged The Grey Zone as a play but on screen the writer and director believes the meticulously recreated historical setting brings into sharper focus the still valid central question.

"How far would you be willing to go to save your own life? Where is your line? The best that I can hope for, for myself and for audiences, is that this movie will at least help us explore the question. I think it is a question that must be asked and must be asked now because our world is only getting more complicated and more dangerous," Mr. Nelson says. "Because it's so specific and because the audience on an intake of breath, can understand that this really happened... this is not fabrication, the questions it asks are all more weighty. These moral questions which history provides us can not be ignored."

David Chandler recreates his role from the original stage production, The Grey Zone cast also features Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel and Natasha Lyonne. It was filmed on location in and around Sofia, Bulgaria.

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