STAGE TO SCREEN: Exploring 'The Grey Zone'

STAGE TO SCREEN: Exploring 'The Grey Zone' I’m afraid "The Grey Zone" has its work cut out for it. Not because it’s a bad movie—it’s quite good, actually, with several astonishing performances and an admirable refusal to sugarcoat a little-known corner of the Holocaust. It’s that very refusal that I’m afraid will make "The Grey Zone" a tough sell for audiences. As costar Mira Sorvino put it, it’s pretty short on "squeaky-clean victims." Which is why she, Harvey Keitel, David Arquette and writer-director Tim Blake Nelson joined a batch of journalists in a midtown hotel room to bang the drum for this worthy film.

I’m afraid "The Grey Zone" has its work cut out for it. Not because it’s a bad movie — it’s quite good, actually, with several astonishing performances and an admirable refusal to sugarcoat a little-known corner of the Holocaust. It’s that very refusal that I’m afraid will make "The Grey Zone" a tough sell for audiences. As costar Mira Sorvino put it, it’s pretty short on "squeaky-clean victims." Which is why she, Harvey Keitel, David Arquette and writer-director Tim Blake Nelson joined a batch of journalists in a midtown hotel room to bang the drum for this worthy film.

In case you didn’t see The Grey Zone during its acclaimed Off-Broadway run in 1996, it follows a group of what were known as Sonderkommandos. These were the elite groups of Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz who found themselves in an unspeakable moral dilemma. After ushering their fellow Jews into the gas chambers, they would remove the bodies, clean the blood and vomit off the walls, and feed the corpses into the crematoria. In return for all this, they received better food, better lodgings—and a few more months to live. Both the play and the film deal with the Sonderkommandos’ crippling guilt and also their acts of compassion, as when a young girl miraculously emerges alive from the gas chambers.

When Nelson and Keitel sat at the interviewers’ table, one of the first questions involved finding a new way to contribute to the ever-growing body of Holocaust films. "Of course, you do end up confronting that problem," Nelson said. In fact, he had previously spent 18 months working on a far more conventional script about his family fleeing Germany just before World War II. But after reading first an essay by Primo Levi and then the memoirs of Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish doctor who worked alongside Dr. Josef Mengele in Auschwitz, Nelson decided to focus instead on the Sonderkommandos and write The Grey Zone, which premiered at MCC.

As you could imagine, converting a nine-character Off-Broadway play into a film with 800 extras took some real effort. "When you’re creating a piece of live theatre, you must be completely, utterly theatrical," Nelson said. "A live theatrical production should feel like it can only be that." By the same token, he said, a film should feel cinematic as only a film can. So things that were only inferred on stage have been spelled out far more explicitly on screen. "‘The Grey Zone’ shows you every stage of the annihilation process. It has to. A film audience needs to see everything. There were no corpses at all in the play, which is very minimalistic."

Surprisingly, Keitel—who presumably has more press interviews under his belt than the other three put together—was frequently at a loss to describe his work on "The Grey Zone." He began to mist up on several occasions, and one seemingly innocuous question about what he saw in the project stopped him cold. After a long pause, he finally answered, "The issues it raised for me are so deeply human that it would take days to talk about it." Nelson said a significant amount of the credit for "The Grey Zone" being made belongs to Keitel, "the living actor who, more than anyone else, has put his money where his mouth is and made risk-taking projects." After Keitel read the "Grey Zone" script, he offered to do whatever it took to get the film made, whether that meant executive producing it, acting in it or both. He ended up doing both: Nelson had originally envisioned Keitel in the role of Schlermer, one of the more belligerent Sonderkommandos, but was convinced to cast him as the presiding Nazi officer instead. (Daniel Benzali ultimately played Schlermer.)

By comparison, Nelson said, the casting of David Arquette (the "Scream" trilogy, "Eight Legged Freaks") was surprisingly intuitive: "David felt like a natural choice, as funny as that sounds. The source for David’s comedy is a willingness to be embarrassed. . . . And in comedy, the cousin to that or brother to that is shame. If the Sonderkommandos have one prevailing emotion, it’s shame."

This account doesn’t exactly jibe with that given by Arquette himself, who came in with Mira Sorvino as Nelson and Keitel retired to another set of interviewers at another table in another room. "I wanted to read for it so bad," Arquette said, but it took at least a month of meetings and auditions before Nelson was convinced he could handle it. "I was up for the experience, but I don’t know if I could have gone to those places if it weren’t for Tim and the world he created. We felt like we were all on this mission.

"I would do anything for this part. This is why I act."

Maybe it’s because writers and directors tend to be more verbal, or maybe it’s because Sorvino and Arquette were asked so many asinine questions. (Sorvino graciously fielded a series of questions about her hair and makeup. Bear in mind that this movie is set in a concentration camp.) Sorvino articulated something that I had only half-noticed—the violence ratchets up very gradually over the course of the film, so the audience’s threshold keeps being nudged toward more and more horrific images. And she also had an interesting take on why it was effective to confine the action to only a dozen or so characters: "By being such a microcosm, by being about such a small group of people, it ended up being bigger than the Holocaust, in a way."

But despite her, Keitel and Arquette’s obvious passion for "The Grey Zone," the most illuminating quotes about the project came from Nelson. When asked if audiences are up for a Holocaust film that shows Jewish and Nazi doctors working side by side in Auschwitz, he lamented the American tendency of distilling history into a very clear-cut, us-against-them dichotomy. When Nelson stumbled onto that Primo Levi essay a decade or so ago, he was fascinated by what he called the "inevitable and deeply human nuances that completely obliterate that view of history. . . . This film finds nuance and shading in a world that is not traditionally shown with these things. It puts a magnifying glass to them."

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I plan to write more next month about "Frida," which opens Oct. 25 in limited release. But I will mention that Julie Taymor spoke a few weeks ago as part of the New Yorker Festival, and she screened a few chunks of the film. I’ve heard that it’s a much more linear and conventional film than "Titus," Taymor’s last movie, and the clips she showed (with the exception of an animated sequence from the Quay Brothers) seemed to jive with this. It looks like Salma Hayek will surprise a lot of people in "Frida." More next time on this.

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The Museum of Modern Art may have moved out to Queens until 2005, but its film program is still based in Manhattan. In fact, it has taken over the Gramercy Theatre, which served as the Roundabout’s Off-Broadway space for the last several years. Among MOMA’s fall film offerings is a tribute to actress Delphine Seyrig, which includes her performance as Mrs. Linde in the 1973 "A Doll’s House," starring Jane Fonda (Oct. 25), and the 1967 film "Accident" (Oct. 19), featuring a screenplay by Harold Pinter. And those of you still waiting to get into Hairspray might consider the next best thing: John Waters will be introducing the original film version on Halloween night. Call (212) 777-4900 for more information.

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Peter Mullan’s "The Magdalene Sisters," which won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, takes a look at one extremely unpleasant chapter in the Catholic Church’s history. And now art-house distributor Kino has purchased the rights to "Amen," directed by Costa-Gavras ("Z," "Missing"). "Amen" is based on The Deputy, a controversial 1963 play by Rolf Hochhuth about Pope Pius XII’s response to the Holocaust during World War II. It stars Mathieu Kassovitz (the romantic interest in "Amelie") and should be released in early 2003. "Amen" should make for an interesting contrast with "The Grey Zone"—two theatre-based movies looking at the various moral ambiguities surrounding the Holocaust.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Michael Mayer (Thoroughly Modern Millie, A View From the Bridge) might finally be making the jump to pictures. Variety reports that he may direct up-and-comer Colin Farrell in "At Home at the End of the World," with a screenplay by "The Hours" author Michael Cunningham. . . . "Marci X," the latest script by Paul Rudnick, is slated to reach theatres January 31. The Lisa Kudrow-Damon Wayans comedy features a slew of theatre veterans in the supporting cast, including Christine Baranski, Veanne Cox, Jane Krakowski, Charles Kimbrough and Sherie Rene Scott. . . . "Gangs of New York," the long-awaited Martin Scorsese period drama with a script cowritten by Ken Lonergan, will reach theatres in early December, a few weeks earlier than anticipated. Of course, "earlier" is a relative term: The film was originally scheduled to open last year. . . . In addition to "The Grey Zone" and "Frida," a few other releases may be of interest to stage buffs. "Love in the Time of Money" (Nov. 1), the latest retelling of "La Ronde," features Malcolm Gets (Amour) as one of the interchangeable lovers. Gets, as you may recall, memorably took on similar duties in Michael John LaChiusa’s musical rendition of the piece, Hello Again, back in 1994. Oct. 25 will see the openings of "The Truth About Charlie," with Stephen Dillane, and "Roger Dodger," with Proof alumnus Ben Shenkman. And "Grey Zone" costar Allan Corduner also appears in the gay-themed drama "Food of Love" (Oct. 25). Incidentally, Corduner—who is exceptional in "The Grey Zone" as Miklos Nyiszli—has one scene with Titanic costar Henry Stram, who plays Mengele in the film.

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My Favorite Thought: The vast majority of you wrote in to say how much you enjoyed the "Chicago" trailer, particularly the concept of staging the songs in Roxie’s mind. Seeing as that’s the biggest and most controversial deviation from the stage version, this consensus appears to be quite favorable for the film. That said, Tom raised one serious objection that is a bit hard to dispute:

"I had quite a different reaction than you to the ‘Chicago’ trailer. They don't even mention that it's a musical. Compare this trailer with any film musical trailer from the ’60s or even the ’70s, and you will see that the trailers for ‘Fiddler,’ ’Cabaret,’ ‘Sweet Charity,’ ‘Hair,’ etc., stuff the previews with song and celebrate the fact that the films are musicals. It's very insulting that theatre artists of the caliber of those who wrote, choreographed, costumed, etc., the film 'Chicago' aren't even used as a selling point in the trailer. I feel this is self-defeating. Making the film look like a romantic drama may well bring in the 14- to 24-year-olds that the Hollywood suits covet, but if they don't get what they expect and are challenged by the sophistication of expressing thought and story through song and dance, they'll react poorly (like the teens in the New Jersey mall audience at ‘Evita’ who laughed every time a character sang for the whole length of the film; I had to run back and see it again [in Manhattan] to restore the correct viewing experience), spread bad word of mouth, etc. ...

"I just hate the fact they are hiding the musical elements. (Miramax probably wouldn't admit it, but I can't be the only person picking up on this.) It's akin to those offensive ‘don't you just hate musicals’ ads for ‘Rent’ a while back."

[NOTE FROM ERIC: Tom raises a good point. I still think the trailer feels pretty "musical," and "All That Jazz" is threaded throughout the whole thing. Still, you wouldn’t automatically know that a straight-up book musical has been brought to the screen. The same sort of thing bugs me when I see a preview for a foreign film that does everything within its power to hide the fact that the actors don’t speak English in the film. The previews usually screen in front of other foreign films, so the audience clearly doesn’t have a problem with subtitles. And they always end up showing people smiling, laughing and falling over. But the trailers keep coming, so the marketers must know something I don’t. Ah, well.]

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Your Thoughts: "Grey Zone" questions this week. Is America in the mood to see any kind of Holocaust film right now, let alone one that casts a critical (or at least a discerning) eye on a subset of the Jews? Will the presence of David Arquette and Mira Sorvino pull more younger audience members in or scare older potential viewers away?

—Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, an assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.