Tim Blake Nelson is hardly the first person to have his life changed by reading the works of Primo Levi. The profound moral probity, intellectual integrity and artistic brilliance of Levi’s writings about his survival of Auschwitz have stirred anyone who has encountered his work. But Nelson is uniquely positioned to extend to Levi’s influence beyond his own life to that of others.
Nelson is a writer and film director, and when he read Levi’s essay, “The Grey Zone,” in “The Drowned and the Saved,” he says, “It startled me and changed my world view. I didn’t know if I would succeed but I felt I had to try to put what I had learned on film, if only as a personal odyssey.”
The end result of that resolution was a play that eventually became Nelson’s new film, “The Grey Zone.” The film is a powerful meditation on the moral universe of the death camps as experienced by the Sonderkommando, the Jews who were chosen by the SS to man the gas chambers and crematoria.
The moral position of the Sonderkommando is a complex one. On the one hand, more than any other Jews in the death camps, they were active participants in the machinery of mass murder. Yet, as Nelson rightly insists, “The Jews in the Sonderkommando did not create this system of extermination, others created it.”
As befits the graduate of an Ivy League college (Brown), the 37-year-old Nelson is thoughtful and articulate in conversation. Slender, almost slight, he sits quietly awaiting the next question, his light brown hair in artful disarray, his eyes intent on his interlocutor.
“Levi saw in the Sonderkommando the epitome of the theory that what you arrived at in the death camps was the very kernel of our humanity,” Nelson continues. “There people were reduced to their most basic impulses, the need to survive at any cost, as opposed to an equally basic impulse as a social animal to live for the betterment of others. Ideally, if one has a conscience and can exercise it, these two impulses can be made to work in concert with one another. The definition of the good life is a person who views their own moral and physical survival in the context of the greater society. Then the Jewish idea of ‘repairing the world’ becomes its own form of survival.”
But the moral universe of the camps allowed for no such balance of impulses, as Levi makes abundantly clear. One of the great strengths of Nelson’s film is that it never tries to evade the implications of that moral universe.
“The predicament of the Sonderkommando sets those forces in diametric opposition,” he explains. “And that is what made this material so irresistible to me as a writer.”
His first approach to “The Grey Zone” was exclusively as a playwright. “I never imagined this story could work as a film,” he confesses. “When I wrote the play, it was exclusively theatrical — there were no sets, no ovens, no flames, no corpses, only a few chairs and benches on a stage.”
Ironically, it was precisely the stark realism that Nelson brought to the film version that made him uneasy imagining the material as anything other than a stage play.
“In film, audience expectations are so different than in a theater,” he says. “With digital effects and the completely mobile camera [equipment] available today, an audience expects you to take them anywhere they need to be in the story. How could I do that? I’d have to show everything.”
But while working as an actor on “The Thin Red Line,” Nelson had a lot of time to watch that film’s director, Terence Malick, “deal with enormity of a war film,” as he puts it.
“I spent five months on that set and I didn’t have that big a part,” he recalls, “so I had a lot of time to watch what Terence was doing, and I began to conceive ‘The Grey Zone’ as a film almost through his eyes. Then I set about writing [the screenplay].”
And one of the things he realized while writing the film is that he would, in fact, “show everything.”
That is one of the film’s internal strengths. Unlike any other previous American film about the Shoah, “The Grey Zone” is utterly clear, terribly lucid about what Daniel Goldhagen memorably called “the microphysics of mass murder,” the process by which the Nazis killed and disposed of 1,500 people three or four times a day in Auschwitz.
Asked about the unprecedented and brutal honesty of his film, Nelson is modest.
“In a sense, this film leans on previous Holocaust films to do its work,” he says. “Because people have seen some of this story before, ‘The Grey Zone’ assumes that an audience needs to be told very little.”
In particular, he points to Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” as a predecessor. “Without ‘Schindler’s List,’ this film couldn’t have been made in the way it was,” Nelson says. “Steven taught people a lot about the Holocaust. The chances that ‘Grey Zone’ is allowed to take — no foreign accents for the actors playing Jews, no rhetoric about being Jewish — wouldn’t have been possible without ‘Schindler’s List.’ That film allowed me to write a shorthand kind of dialogue so that the movie can soar to a philosophical level in its discourse.”
Yet Nelson is equally blunt in assessing the problems that previous American films about the Shoah created for him.
“From the outset I chose not to fall into the traps that other Holocaust films did,” he says. “I made a choice not to sanctify the Jews as victims or to make them quaint and meek. Others films have created a false picture of what these people were like. I had to show them as real people, strong-willed, profane, quick-thinking, capable of aggression.
“The Nazis chose them for the Sonderkommando for precisely those qualities.”
Most of all, he had to resist the easy urge to manipulate audience emotions. “In this context, sentimentality is a form of emotional pornography,” Nelson says sternly.
He succeeds in all his goals admirably, with the result that “The Grey Zone” inhabits a level of emotional and moral honesty that other films about the Shoah can only dream of. And if the result is almost unbearably bleak, Nelson can take comfort in the integrity of his work.
Clearly, he feels that way himself. When asked if the process of filming such a relentlessly stark film was depressing or troubling for cast or director, Nelson demurs.
“It was a fairly intense shoot,” he recalls, “but we all shared a sense of liberation because we weren’t plagued by self-doubt. We felt that were in the right place and using our lives and creativity well, that we would never do something that would weigh more than this. I can’t imagine working with more of a sense of purpose or focus, or feeling more alive in my work.”
“The Grey Zone” opens Oct. 18 at the Loews Lincoln Square (Broadway and 68th Street), Loews 72nd Street East (Third Avenue and 72nd Street) and the Sunshine Cinema (143 E. Houston St., between 1st and 2nd avenues).