WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
On paper, The Grey Zone was surely a striking concept: A group of Jewish men at Auschwitz, known as Sonderkommando, have been enlisted by the Nazis to help corral their fellow Jews into the gas chambers. In return, the Sonderkommando receive special favors and perhaps a few extra months of life. The weight of their forced betrayal gnaws at their souls until one day, they manage to rescue a young girl who has miraculously survived the gas chamber. By saving this one life, from among thousands, perhaps they can arrange the salvation of their own souls.
Director Tim Blake Nelson (whom you might remember as an actor in O Brother Where Art Thou) bases his story on a true incident that first inspired a stage play. Using the play as his source, Nelson has created a film that retains its stagy origins to a certain extent. The dialog has that clipped, slightly irritating quality that might seem more at home in a David Mamet production. And Nelson has also made the unfortunate decision to have all his players speak English, even though they're by turns "actually" speaking German and Hungarian and having trouble understanding each other. It's a weird device that takes you right out of the drama. It doesn't help that the only character with an accent is Harvey Keitel's Nazi officer, who seems to have learned his accent by way of the Bronx.
That being said, the film holds undeniable power in its Holocaust imagery—some of the most horrific and unrelenting I've ever seen in a film of this type. The Grey Zone never shies away from the terror and sadness of the gas chamber, the mass burning of Jewish corpses, the insane brutality of the German forces, the forlorn humanity of the captives. And in the Sonderkommando, this film has a surefire route to your soul.
But, in the end, The Grey Zone is a movie that has stumbled upon a wonderful salvation-from-out-of-the-ruins concept but has overplayed itself, deciding to slam home its message rather than go for subtlety. Often, I felt myself going spiritually limp in the midst of a scene that should have held extraordinary power. If ever a movie cried out for an anonymous cast of sad souls, The Grey Zone is it. How much better might this film have been had it starred unknowns instead of Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Mira Sorvino, Natasha Lyonne, and David Arquette? No, by featuring a strange cast of stars, most speaking modern English, the dramatic aspect of this production fails—almost miserably. It's the subject matter that holds the power, as it always will.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Lion's Gate presents The Grey Zone in an above-average anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Although the proceedings are generally soft, detail is fine, reaching into backgrounds. This is a dark film, though, and I recommend watching it in a completely dark room. The image is pretty stable, and the print itself is generally clean, although I noticed infrequent specks. The color palette is intentionally drab.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is actually quite immersive. Across the front, the soundstage is wide, and I noticed excellent ambient sound from the rear channels: Effects such as background voices, gunshots, footsteps and other sound effects were frequent, giving the film a disturbing sense of envelopment. Dialog can be very quiet, however—especially compared to some of the louder sound effects—so you might have to play with the volume as you watch.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The only outright special feature that I found on this disc is a 5-minute collection of Deleted Scenes, with the added attraction of being able to view them with optional Tim Blake Nelson commentary. These scenes don't amount to much, but it's nice to hear some of Nelson's views about his film.
Early glimpses of the DVD's packaging told me that the DVD would include a cast and crew commentary, but I found nothing of the sort on my review disc.
There's also an easy-to-find easter egg that gives you the film's trailer, as well as the trailer for Eye of God, both in full frame.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
The Grey Zone is an undeniably powerful Holocaust drama, but its drama plays out heavy-handedly. Watch it for its unsettling, unflinching look at Auschwitz. Unfortunately, this DVD, while holding a fine video/audio presentation, suffers a case of anemic extras.