Hoffman (David Arquette) Rosenthal (David Chandler) and Schlermer (Daniel Benzali) know their time is running out. As Sonderkommandos inside a Nazi concentration camp they have been forced to escort their fellow Jews into the gas chambers burn the corpses and dispose of the ashes. In exchange they receive a comfortable living with plenty of food and wine and fresh linens on their beds. But they know that soon their four-month period will be over and they will be executed like the rest. With the intention of rising up against their captors and destroying the ovens they have been hoarding weapons and supplies. They receive help in the form of gunpowder from a group of women prisoners working in a munitions plant. When the women are caught the instigator Dina (Mira Sorvino) valiantly refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the powder under nearly unbearable torture. Meanwhile Hoffman discovers a young girl who has somehow survived the gassing. Before she is burned alive in the ovens he and his fellow prisoners revive her with the help of Dr. Nyiszli (Allan Corduner) a Jewish doctor brought to the camp to perform experiments on the prisoners. Dr. Nyiszli has his own choices to make when the Nazi in charge of the crematorium (Harvey Keitel) offers to save his wife and daughter in exchange for information on the suspected revolt. The conflicts within the prisoners catalyze with the fate of the girl whose existence threatens to interfere with their plans but whose life they cannot deny.
In a surprisingly serious role David Arquette manages to hold his own against arguably better actors such as Steve Buscemi and David Chandler. Though his performance is admirably understated it's hard to buy him as a World War II-era Hungarian Jew. Another actor in the role might be hearing the words "Oscar-caliber performance" whispered around town but it's unlikely that Arquette will achieve anything more than an improved respect among his peers with this film. Mira Sorvino on the other hand has Best Supporting Actress written all over her performance. Looking gaunt and bedraggled she is nearly unrecognizable at first and gives a moving performance as one of the noble women who holds her ground under extreme torture. The talented and underrated Natasha Lyonne makes much of her small amount of screen time. As Oberschaarfher Muhsfeldt Harvey Keitel brings a certain humanity to his seemingly inhuman character in spite of a tenuous German accent. His scenes with Allan Corduner as Dr. Nyiszli provide an interesting counterpoint to the conflicts going on in the rest of the camp.
With so many accounts of the holocaust already adapted to the screen it would seem that there's little new ground to cover. Yet with this film director Tim Blake Nelson proves that Hollywood has only just scratched the surface. Like his first feature Eyes of God The Grey Zone is based on a stage play written by Nelson himself. Acting as editor and screenwriter as well as director he's adapted the story for the screen without pulling any punches. The result is an unflinching portrait of our equal capacity for good and evil that ranks with some of the best holocaust films ever made. It's not an easy film to watch. Scenes of death and torture are laced with troubling philosophical ambiguities that force the audience to examine what they would do in the same situation. In one scene Nelson literally does put the audience in the position of a victim about to be gassed using point-of-view angle shot with a handheld camera. The characters aren't portrayed as one-dimensional villains or victims. They are flawed and human full of complexities brought about by their unique moral dilemma. Of the many memorable scenes one of the best is an ironic juxtaposition as a band of prisoners plays a breezy Strauss waltz while a long queue of new Jewish arrivals files into the camp unknowingly headed towards the gas chambers. The film is full of poignant moments like this and is worth the time for those not bothered by the highly intense subject matter.