October 17, 2002
Shades of ‘Grey’
Before Tim Blake Nelson wrote and directed his controversial Holocaust drama, "The Grey Zone," he set out to create a play about his family's escape from Nazi Germany just before Kristallnacht.
"But it just felt like the same old survivor's tale," the erudite director said during an interview at the Mondrian Hotel. "And with all the extraordinary work that's been done on the Holocaust, I felt I'd better not go there, unless I could say something new."
He found it upon reading Primo Levi's essay, "The Grey Zone," about the Sonderkommandos -- Jews who ushered prisoners into the changing rooms, hosed blood and feces from the gas chambers and shuttled corpses into the ovens. Aiding the death machine bought them extra months of life with unheard of privileges, including permission to scavenge the food and belongings of the dead.
Nelson -- who likes to describe himself as "a Jew from Tulsa" -- said he grew up attending synagogue and Hebrew school, but had never heard of the Sonderkommandos. "I couldn't have contrived a more extreme moral dilemma," he said. "As an able-bodied Jewish man in my 30s, I realized I could have been faced with their impossible choice, had I been swept into a cattle car in 1944."
Nelson, who attended Brown University and Juilliard, went on to write and direct an Obie-winning 1996 play, and a brutally realistic new film that follows Birkenau Sonderkommandos as they plot a rebellion and discover a girl still alive in the gas chamber. Loosely based on real events, the edgy drama -- starring Harvey Keitel and David Arquette (see sidebar) depicts the squad's grisly work in meticulous detail, including the repainting of soiled gas chamber walls and the handling of bodies with specially designed pokers.
Without the sentimentality of Holocaust films such as "Life Is Beautiful" or "Schindler's List," Variety reports that the movie "may well evoke the mechanized horror ... of the Nazi death camps more vividly than any fictional film to date."
Nelson explained that his goal was "to break many of the conventions of the Holocaust film. The Jews in this movie don't pray or cower. They are crass and profane. They treat bodies like bolts of fabric. They seem to be working in a factory, which is what they had to do to survive."
Nelson, the son and grandson of survivors, said ethical concerns were paramount in his childhood home. His mother, Ruth, who heads Tulsa's housing authority, served as president of charities such as Planned Parenthood.
"My grandfather often told me that I shouldn't be alive, and my mother, in particular, spent her life 'earning' her right to be alive by improving conditions for others," the director said.
Nelson also hoped to make a difference by acting in weighty films, but was relegated to comic roles because of his appearance (he is 5 feet 6 inches tall and, in his words, "odd looking.") Although he turned heads with hilarious roles such as Delmar, a dimwit hillbilly in "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" he began writing and directing his own work (including the 1997 parable, "Eye of God") to tackle serious issues.
To research "The Grey Zone," he read at least 7,000 pages of material, including Sonderkommando diaries found buried at Birkenau and the memoir of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish pathologist who was at Aushewitz, portrayed in the film by Keitel. On location in the village of Giten, Bulgaria, Nelson supervised construction of an almost life-sized crematorium based on Nazi blueprints.
The hyper-realistic set fueled the performances: "It was enough to literally make you sick," said Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino, who plays a member of the camp underground. "It was so oppressive, that it was the only time in my life I felt I did almost no acting."
Like many of the other actors, Sorvino -- who ate 600 calories a day for weeks to appear emaciated -- agreed to minimal pay because of her personal connection to the material. "I've been obsessed with the Holocaust from the time I was 10, and I read 'The Diary of Anne Frank,' and our German housekeeper told me to stop crying because it was all a lie," she said. "After that I had nightmares about being hunted by Nazis, which recurred after making the film."
Despite the best efforts of the cast and crew, the movie has already received criticism. Nelson said several viewers have objected to his depiction of Holocaust victims as less than angelic.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Museum of Tolerance said he declined to screen the film, because its graphic sequences would "upset our survivor constituency."
Perhaps the staunchest critic of all -- at least initially -- was Dario Gabbai of Los Angeles, who worked at Birkenau's crematorium as the camp was "processing" 24,000 corpses in 24 hours. After his first viewing of the film, he complained about details such as the lavish feasting of the Sonderkommandos, which was not his experience.
But Gabbai -- who changed his mind after spending hours with Nelson -- cried during the premiere last month at a benefit for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. "Since seeing the movie, I am dreaming again about the flames and the bodies," he said. "But it is a story that needs to be told."