IN "THE Grey Zone," set in the final throes of World War II, the Auschwitz crematoria are smoking. Jewish prisoners load lifeless bodies of men, women and children into furnaces. And Nazi soldiers police this fenced-in killing ground with pistols, executing anyone they please.
Tim Blake Nelson's movie, starring David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Mira Sorvino and Harvey Keitel, is about the Sonder- kommandos, the Jewish guards who dispose of the bodies. For their unpleasant work, they get to survive -- for the time being. They also get decent quarters, cigarettes and other black-market loot. And they can pocket any valuables they find among the bodies.
Even Sonderkommandos get replaced, however. Which is why this particular cluster, the 12th Sonderkommandos (of an eventual 13) are planning an uprising, with the help of female inmates from a nearby camp, who smuggle ammunition powder in carts bearing the dead.
But when a Hungarian girl (Kamelia Grigorova) miraculously survives the gas showers, it puts these Hungarian Sonderkommandos in a quandary. Keeping her alive and hidden from the Nazis presents dangers and a possible hindrance to their planned rebellion.
Nelson, a playwright, director and actor (he played Delmar in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), adapted "The Grey Zone" from his own play.
He was inspired by a number of sources: an essay in Primo Levi's book, "The Drowned and the Saved," Miklos Nyiszli's book, "Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account," and the diaries of dead Sonderkommando guards at the Birkenau camp. In fact, Nyiszli (played by Alan Corduner of "Topsy-Turvy") has a significant role in this movie, as Josef Mengele's favorite macabre experimenter.
His research and source material clearly informs the movie's nasty realism. We see this in a subtle way, as Jewish guards urge incoming prisoners to hang up their clothes so they can sooner be fed and reunited with their families. The message gives the prisoners false hope and they walk, naked, into a shower of poisonous gas.
Then we see the nastiness in more obvious ways: The Sonderkommandos extract gold teeth from corpses and cut their dead hair. And in one horrifying scene, a Jewish prisoner is beaten to death over a gold watch.
But for all these authentically depicted atrocities, something isn't quite right. Against this backdrop of horror, the likes of Arquette and Buscemi emote and interpret self-consciously honed dialogue. The characters speak with a clipped, poetic snap, as if David Mamet had a hand in the writing. There's a stagy poetry to everything -- sometimes it works and sometimes it screams of artifice.
What are we to make of these familiar indie-movie actors and their method acting tics against this grim Auschwitz tableau? It's clear that Nelson has dispensed with the mimicking of accents -- although Keitel plays a Nazi guard with as much German gusto as he can command. But even if you accept this linguistic license (they're all "speaking Hungarian" in English), it feels odd. Beyond that, these characters rarely get us emotionally involved. They're just too darned healthy, peppy and American. (Sorvino, however, does make an impressively gaunt spectacle as a female inmate faced with torture for smuggling ammunition.) Can we concentrate on the poetic truth only, and ignore the awkwardness? Do the staginess and realism complement or nullify each other? Nelson certainly passes muster for sincerity but, unfortunately, his movie doesn't have the same clear-cut quality.
THE GREY ZONE (R, 108 minutes) -- Contains Holocaust horrors, nudity, obscenity and violence. At the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Shirlington, and Landmark Theatres Bethesda Row.