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As a subject for a reputation-making drama, the Holocaust is both ideal and problematic. Few will question the earnestness of a film set entirely within the confines of Auschwitz, especially one that endeavors to depict with unprecedented candor the killing and incinerating of trainloads of Jews. Yet the infamy of the Nazi death camps overwhelms most attempts to represent them. The Grey Zone, adapted from writer-director Tim Blake Nelson’s own play, means to be unflinching, but it seems inadequate next to the events it recounts. These are based in part on Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved and Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, a memoir by Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian doctor who assisted Mengele’s notorious experiments. Hoffman (David Arquette) and Abramowics (Steve Buscemi) are members of the Sonderkommando, the men who were granted privileges—including a few more weeks of life—in exchange for leading fellow Jews into the gas chambers and then dispatching their bodies to the flames. In 1944, with Russian troops advancing, Hoffman, Abramowics, and others plan an uprising, with the goal of destroying the crematoriums. (In fact, the rebellion happened, and two crematoriums were permanently disabled.) The conspirators are smuggled gunpowder by lesbian members of the women’s munitions unit (Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne), and deflect questions from Nyiszli (a convincing Allan Corduner) and Nazi officer Muhsfeldt (a cartoonish Harvey Keitel), the rebel group’s only two historical characters. The insurrection is delayed by the Polish contingent’s desire to work an escape into the scheme and complicated when some of the Hungarians insist on saving the life of a 14-year-old girl (Kamelia Grigorova) who somehow survived the poison gas. Cinematographer Russell Lee Fine effectively renders the camp in shades of ash and grime, and uses tight angles and handheld camera to create a horrible intimacy with the doomed characters. Nelson’s dialogue is much less convincing, however, and the film’s mostly callow cast reminds us that the director’s last film was O, which turned a classic tragedy into a high-school flick. —Mark Jenkins