"This Is Not a Movie About the Holocaust"

Director Tim Blake Nelson and stars Mira Sorvino and David Arquette visit The Grey Zone


Tim Blake Nelson
Director Tim Blake Nelson
on the set of The Grey Zone

USA, 2001. Rated R. 108 minutes.

Cast: David Arquette, Allan Corduner, Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, Natasha Lyonne, Daniel Benzali, David Chandler, Kamelia Grigorova
Writer: Tim Blake Nelson, based on his play, and in part on a memoir by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli
Director: Tim Blake Nelson

• Carlo's review of The Grey Zone
• Related materials and links


"Let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever."

-- Vladimir Nabokov

"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted;
persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished;
persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

-- Mark Twain

L ike Nabokov and Twain, most filmmakers insist they are spinners of yarns, not teachers of morals or deliverers of messages. As Oliver Hirschbeigel, director of Das Experiment recently said, "As a filmmaker I do not plan on getting any message across… I'm a storyteller. That's my attitude. I want to entertain people."

Tim Blake Nelson would more likely side with the Roman poet Horace, who famously wrote that the purpose of art is both to delight and to instruct. Nelson has something to say in his new film The Grey Zone, set at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. As Nelson outlines his reasons for making the film, it soon becomes evident that the philosophical dimensions are as important to him as the story. Listening to him is a little bizarre--Nelson's words are compelling and intelligent, while his face is that of Delmar from O Brother Where Art Thou? and Bubba from The Good Girl. Few people are capable of speaking consistently in complete sentences. Nelson doesn't just do that. He speaks in complete paragraphs, his every thesis thoughtfully and persuasively argued.

Nelson, who is Jewish, believes the Holocaust is wrongly dichotomized as an epic struggle between good and evil. Citing the work of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, Nelson argues that such a portrayal is unfair to the victims. "As Levi points out…we would much rather see history as propelled forward by binary forces in opposition to one another--good and evil, victim and perpetrator, white and black. Particularly in history's darkest times, we'd like to think in terms of extremes. We don't want to accept that there are nuances and gray areas. And even if there are, talking about them is seen as destructive--not helpful--because, of course, how else can you see the Holocaust but as the evil of Nazism and the victimization of the Jews? And people, again as Levi points out…protect that way of looking at history, because it serves them."
David Arquette
David Arquette in
The Grey Zone

Nelson continues to expound on the moral quandaries raised by the Holocaust. It was more than just Jews=victims. In Nelson's view, casting Jews as pure victims sanctifies them, while the reality is that they were human. Nelson again mentions Levi, who characterized the camp as a "zero-sum game." If one person lived, it meant someone else died. "To sanctify the survivor, to sanctify someone simply because they were on the other side, they were Jews, is an oversimplification," Nelson believes. Obviously, this viewpoint is controversial.

In Levi's essay "The Grey Zone," from the book The Drowned and the Saved, Nelson discovered the Sonderkommandos, buried in Holocaust historiography precisely because of people's need to preserve a polarized view of the Holocaust. The Sonderkommandos were Jews who made an astonishing choice. Their Nazi jailers presented them with two inconceivable options: die immediately or facilitate the murder of fellow Jews. In exchange, they would live an extra four months while enjoying special privileges such as larger quarters, better food, books, alcohol, and cigarettes. They made this choice not because they were evil themselves, but because they were human beings responding to the most basic instinct in all of us: the instinct to survive.

Question: Holocaust films have been made for decades… what do you think sets this one apart?

Sorvino: First of all, Tim made a very deliberate effort to make the characters seem as normal and modern as everyone at this table. He expressly had us not prepare Polish, or Hungarian, or Yiddish accents. He said, "First of all, these people would be speaking their own languages, so they wouldn't have an accent, a foreign accent." He also wrote the dialogue in a very modern, colloquial way rather than something from an old movie, where people spoke in a slightly more genteel, different way. He wanted you to watch it and say, "Oh, that could be me. Oh, they're too modern--they can't be real." But that's the point. They're just like us.

Where would you stand in this spectrum of responses to atrocity if you were forced to the middle of it, perhaps with a gun to your head? How would you define yourself when you have to make very active choices concerning what you believe in and who you are on the inside? It's not about thought anymore, or words. It's literally life and death situations where you have to commit your entire being, physically, to a decision, to a way to go. Either you can cave and save your heroism for another day, or you can try to stand up for a cause no matter what the results.

I think it's about a human condition under the lens of the Holocaust. I don't think it's really about the… uber-Holocaust. I don't think it's about every aspect of World War Two at all. It's about a very small group of people in an extreme circumstance, and the human spirit--what it's capable of in both directions.

The thing about this movie that is very different from the other Holocaust movies I have seen, is it doesn't wrap itself up neatly in the end. It is not tied up in a little bow for easy consumption. I think that's good. It doesn't send you into things with music… It's not at all like a Hollywood movie where you're told by the violins when to cry, whose life was really worth crying over, who's a hero. It's saying there are no heroes or villains here, necessarily.

It's [about] human beings, and what is it to be human. I think, afterwards…it leaves you with all the questions for you to answer, which makes it so different from the didactic and somewhat sentimental effect that many of the other Holocaust movies had had, however great they may be or well-intentioned. This one is challenging and respects you as an audience member, and says, "It is ultimately up to you to think about this. We're not going to tell you anything. We're just going to present the case to you." Then you walk away and think about it. And I think that's so great. I would love it if more films expected me to think about what they're talking about rather than to tell me at the end--"Now, this is what you should feel about what you just experienced."


Question: What was it like working with Harvey Keitel?

Arquette: I don't know about how Harvey feels about people talking about the process behind the camera, but… I hope I don't offend him by what I'm saying, or reveal too much, or whatever… but he consciously didn't want any contact with us during the filming.

We were all staying in the same hotel, pretty much eating in the same restaurant, so it became this strange dynamic. He'd have his group of people at one table, and all of us would be at another table. So it was kind of a strange segregation that he enforced. At first it filled me kind of with animosity toward him, which is probably… [laughs] …a good thing! Definitely! Then I came to a place where I thought, "What is this? Social camp? Everyone has to hang out together, get to know each other?" It started making sense to me.

As soon as I starting having scenes with him, I could see how effective his process was, and how it helped me along, although all he was doing it for was his own process. Then at the end, after it was all done, we all went out to dinner, and he was very gracious, and we talked, and he told some incredible stories. It was amazing working with him… Plus, my character couldn't look him in the eyes. It added to [the performance], not looking at him for three months.

Nelson's drive to tell their story springs from his belief that the good-versus-evil analysis of the Holocaust excuses us from examining its human causes and dimensions. "As Levi points out, ultimately it doesn't serve us, because we need to understand how each of us is vulnerable, and how human beings are inevitably and tragically vulnerable because of needs basic to us, and in the case of the Sonderkommandos, the need to survive. What is more basic than that? This need to survive was co-opted by the Nazis to create a labor force for the extermination of the Jews."

But does that make the Sonderkommandos, faced with an impossible quandary, any less victimized? "In the traditional sense, I believe, yes it does," says Nelson. "Look at it this way: wouldn't you like to think that if you were faced with the choice, abet the slaughter of others or be killed, or commit suicide, that you would choose to sacrifice yourself?" Yet Nelson himself acknowledges, as do cast members David Arquette and Mira Sorvino, that he has no idea what he would do if faced with the same choice. When the Sonderkommandos made their choice, they ceased to be purely victims, but they did not cease to be human beings. That, according to Nelson, is why his film is gray, and not black and white.

"The deeper question for me," says Nelson, "transcends Judaism or religion. The movie is about being human more than it's about the Holocaust or Jews. At the center of this film is this impossible, unfathomable moral predicament, which pits, in the individual, the two greatest human forces--the will to live, that as individuals each of us has, and our impulse as a societal animal to reach outside ourselves and work for the betterment of society--of others. In these Sonderkommandos' predicament, in the choice that was forced upon them, they had to choose. Do I die? Or do I live by abetting the slaughter of others?" The majority of Jews given the choice became Sonderkommandos. Nelson doesn't condemn that choice, but he again points out that those Jews became something less than pure victims. "We can see each one of ourselves in that situation, perhaps acting in that way, because we are human. But we're not sanctified victims."

The story began as a play, as all of Nelson's films have--whether by him or someone else (in this case, the play is also by Nelson). Once it was ready to become a movie, Nelson's unusually ambiguous reading of the Holocaust attracted some heavy acting talent. In the film, Sonderkommandos played by Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Daniel Benzali, and David Chandler attempt to redeem themselves by making a desperate effort to save the life of a young girl and to destroy the furnaces with explosives smuggled in by munitions factory workers played by Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne. At the same time, Dr. Miklos Nyiszli (Allan Corduner), a Hungarian Jew who assisted with Josef Mengele's infamous experiments and upon whose first-hand accounts the story is largely based, spars with German officer Erich Muhsfeldt (Harvey Keitel) while struggling to maintain his own humanity.

Though she is not Jewish, Sorvino was attracted to the film because, due to some odd personal circumstances, she had been "kind of obsessed" with Holocaust history from when she was a girl. Her family's housekeeper turned out to be a Neo-Nazi, something that was discovered only after Sorvino, at the age of ten, finished reading The Diary of Anne FrankL.

"At the end of it I was completely devastated and crying out loud. My parents weren't home because my mother was giving birth to my brother at the hospital. There was a housekeeper watching us, and she was a German lady in her forties, and she heard me crying and ran up the stairs, and said, 'Oh, Mira. What's wrong?' I said, 'Oh, this is just so terrible, this little girl, all her possibilities just snuffed out, and so many other people like her, all that possibility, just gone!' And she said, 'Oh, no, no. Don't cry. It's all lies. Many, many more Germans died than Jews. It's all lies. Only six hundred thousand, not six million, died.' And I said, 'But no, it's history... I think it happened.' She said, 'Oh no no no. It's all lies and manipulations. It didn't really happen this way.' Don't worry your pretty little head kind of thing, go to sleep. And I think she had been in the German youth movement when she was young.

"My parents the next week interviewed her very carefully and discovered that she was half a lunatic and felt that Jews were following her around, and leaving hand prints on her walls, and cutting her rose bushes down to nothing. She had a gun… So they found an excuse to get rid of her." Sorvino would again have the same claim made to her face--that only six hundred thousand Jews died during World War Two--when, as a young college graduate, she worked on a documentary called Freedom to Hate, about nationalistic Neo-Nazi hate groups in the former Soviet Union.

To prepare for the part, Sorvino lost twenty pounds at Nelson's insistence. "You can't see it mostly, because I have that very long, sack-y thing… [But] when I talk, you can see the tendons in my face move. I was the weight that I was when I was twelve years old." 108 pounds, to be exact, extremely light for a woman five-feet, nine-inches tall. The drastic transformation was also distressing to Bernardo Bertollucci, producer of Sorvino's subsequent project, Triumph of Love.

To prepare, Nelson also required Sorvino and the other actors to read a stack of books. Sorvino lists Five Chimneys by Olga Lengyel and Man's Search for Meaning, by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, both Auschwitz survivors, as being the most memorable works she read. Arquette, who also prepared by visiting the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C, says that Eyewitness Auschwitz by Filip Muller, a former Sonderkommando, was particularly helpful.

Like Nelson, Arquette cites Primo Levi as an important influence. "A lot of my empathy came from the books that I read. A lot of the stuff that Primo Levi wrote was really helpful because he put a beautiful twist on it. You think that this is a completely desolate life that they're leading, and he could somehow find poetry in it... He writes in one of the books that there was God in these concentrations camps."

Arquette, known for the Scream movies and similar fare, is an unusual choice for a pivotal role in a dark, introspective drama like The Grey Zone, and he knows it. Speaking softly and deliberately, almost shyly, Arquette is an uncomfortable interviewee, tending to look at the table beneath him as much as the questioners around him. "I felt really honored to be able to be a part of this movie, and Tim having the confidence to let me portray this part was just--I'm just indebted to him."

Arquette, whose mother is Jewish, was so intent on winning the part that he worked with an acting coach before auditioning with Nelson, despite the fact that he and Nelson were already friends. "I think it was a difficult decision for him to make, because I know a lot of really interesting actors were up for it. So, he finally let me do it, and I'm just so grateful. It's not the typical kind of movie that I do. People don't necessarily expect it." He hopes perceptions of him will change as a result of The Grey Zone. "I'd be glad not to be seen as the AT&T guy again."

Money was not a consideration for any of the actors, because there was little available. With a budget of only four million dollars, Nelson spent most of it building two model crematoria at eighty-percent to scale in Bulgaria, and on the sound.

"The sound," Nelson explains, "is all around you. The sound designer on the film--the sound supervisor, Phil Benson--had this script before I gave it to actors. I knew I wanted him to work with me because we worked on O [Nelson's troubled teen remake of Othello, another controversial project that was finally released last year by after being shelved, and subsequently dumped, by Miramax]… The whole approach to making the film was protecting our sound budget so that we could work on it at Skywalker, which is expensive… Our library ultimately ended up having over 600 machinery and furnace tracks. What you're listing to is a meticulously calibrated soundtrack with usually six to seven different sounds at once, which act very much in place of a musical score, because the movie isn't scored."

The elaborate sound design and the use of hand-held cameras that often turn 360 degrees in a scene without cutting (a difficult, time-consuming technique that requires the crew to be hidden) immerses the audience into the movie. "I wanted for the audience to feel they were experiencing the movie, not watching it," says Nelson.
Mira Sorvino
Mira Sorvino in
The Grey Zone

Connecting the audience with the film prevents them from distancing themselves and looking on it as different world. That's also why Nelson chose not to use foreign accents, for the most part, in the movie. Keitel is the only principal cast member to speak with an accent.

"The decision was, the Germans are speaking in German, and they'll speak in German accents. But I have tired of hearing Jewish characters in Holocaust films speaking in English with those accents. I think it distances the audience from the experience, because you say, 'Oh that's those people from that time, fifty years ago.' It distances the actors also, because they take on the mantle of a character of fifty years ago. I simply wanted this film to feel absolutely immediate," the director explains. "This not a film about the Holocaust. It's a film about humanity, and it's meant to be relevant now, while still being entirely accurate to period. That…led me to the American accents, because…you don't speak with an accent in your native tongue."

The film's final words underscore the importance of total immersion. It is a mini-monologue read in voiceover by the little girl who catalyzes the events of the film. Referring to the ashes from the furnaces and the Sonderkommandos working among them, she says, "And soon they don't cough, and they don't brush us away. At this point they're just moving. Breathing and moving. Like anyone else still alive in that place. All of us. This is how the work continues."

Nelson says of the speech, "It's not meant as a judgment of them; it's meant as a judgment of us. It's to say to you as an audience member, 'what dust are you breathing in to have the privileges you enjoy?' Because she doesn't say, 'This is how the work continued.' She says, 'This is how the work continues.' In the final line of Levi's chapter, he says, 'We are all in the ghetto, and the ghetto is walled in, and outside the lords of death are waiting.' He's urging a reading of the Holocaust that is not historical, that is not allegorical, but which is present. It's saying to you, 'Read the Holocaust as an event that is happening now, in less extreme ways. Don't read it as history, because in history it's in a dustbin. Read it now.'"

Nelson doesn't mean to diminish the magnitude of the Holocaust by comparing it to our lives in the present day. "I do not believe we are living in a Holocaust. Let me point that out. Having not lived through the Holocaust, I don't think I have the right to make that statement." Nevertheless, the point he wants to make is that there are parallels. "In lesser ways, what do you choose to ignore when you walk down the street? What do you choose to ignore with the product you buy? I'm not even hysterical about these issues. I simply bring them up. I mean… maybe I'm a hypocrite. I don't pore over the ingredients in my toothpaste. But I do know I'm breathing in dust."

We are all breathing in dust. That's why Nelson wanted to tell the story of the Sonderkommandos, and why he thinks we should care about them today. The Sonderkommandos were faced with a choice more extreme and more immediate than anyone has to face today, but the difference between it and the compromises we all make to live our lives is simply one of degree.

Sorvino puts her finger on the central question of the film. "How would you define yourself when you have to make very active choices concerning what you believe in and who you are on the inside? It's not about thought anymore, or words. It's literally life and death situations where you have to commit your entire being, physically, to a decision, to a way to go." The Sonderkommandos could actually see the dust created by their choice, and were covered by it, while most of us today cannot--but that doesn't mean it's not there.

Feature and interviews © November 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.

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