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The Grey Zone opens with a title card that promises that the movie is about the only uprising in a Nazi concentration camp, but you’ll spend most of the movie waiting for the promise to be fulfilled. Instead of generating suspense, the movie only breeds impatience.

Three Pairs

Harvey Keitel watches his flockThere are three central relationships in The Grey Zone.

The first is a tense friendship between Abramowics (Steve Buscemi), a Pole, and Hoffman (David Arquette), a Hungrian. Both are Jewish prisoners planning an uprising at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Polish section of the camp wants to delay the uprising a little longer, to allow more time for planning. The Hungarians want to begin as soon as possible so as to save more lives. The two factions also begin to disagree over their goal. From the beginning, they planned to destroy the ovens, thus slowing down the slaughter of the prisoners. But Abramowics is now entertaining the idea of escape.

Dr. Nyiszli (Allan Corduner) is a Jewish doctor, a prisoner, and the personal assistant to Joseph Mengele, the “Angel of Death.” Dr. Nyiszli is always under the watchful eye of Herr Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel), who drinks too much and enjoys his power over Nyiszli, a man much smarter than he. The doctor is ostracized by the other prisoners because of his complicity with the Nazis, although he makes the case that in the camps, anyone can morally do anything simply to survive.

Finally, Dina (Mira Sorvino) and Rosa (Natasha Lyonne) smuggle gunpowder from their factory for use in the uprising. Both are caught in the act and tortured mercilessly. “Don’t talk” literally becomes their mantra as misery, hopelessness, and insanity reduce them to nothing.

Nice Try

The Grey Zone spends too much time on the people, rather than on the events. The Auschwitz-Birkenau uprising is one of the most inspiring and moving stories of World War II. It’s a story we all want to hear. But director Nelson invokes impatience instead of anticipation. He merely delays the story we’ve all come to see, rather than building up to it

In this kind of movie, we want to see the plan come together. Satisfaction comes from seeing how smart or clever or careless the prisoners are. We want to know why the uprising works or fails, depending on how the storyteller chooses to frame it.

Contrast The Grey Zone to The Great Escape. In both movies, something bold is planned, but The Great Escape gives a sense of how each person will contribute and what the desired outcome is. When the plan is executed, we have a vested interest in seeing each piece either fall into place or fall apart.

People Change

Although Nelson deserves plaudits for finally bringing this story to the big screen, he may have been the wrong man to do it.

For one thing, it’s distracting to see American actors — comic ones at that — in a film about Poles and Hungarians in a Nazi concentration camp. In particular Steve Buscemi and David Arquette seem like a pairing made in post-ironic comedy heaven — not in a tragic drama.

Also, nearly all the modern actors are too healthy. They’re not emaciated enough to be portraying concentration camp survivors and workers. Costuming helps somewhat, but well-fed faces can’t be draped with oversized clothes. I don’t object to creative casting, but perhaps this corner of history still requires delicacy and respect.

There are some exceptions, notably Corduner as Nyiszli. The part is both well written and well acted. Nyiszli is convincingly troubled by his moral situation — saving himself at the expense of working for Mengele. But Nyiszli is doing more than just surviving, he’s finding stimulating and meaningful work. Does the fact that he does more than merely survive makes him a traitor to his race? Hard to say; it’s a grey area.

A final complaint is that some too-American sounding dialogue slips into the film. After an argument in the women’s toilet, Dina says “of course she’s right but I wish I could slap the shit out of her.” It sounds out of place, too modern, too American. Most of all it sounds too cocky and confident to come from someone in a concentration camp.

Emotional Power

Although there are problems with Nelson’s style, The Grey Zone is moving in all the right places. Scenes of trauma, sacrifice, and heroism work beautifully. Unfortunately, these scenes exist in a movie that lacks a sense of direction.