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October 26, 2002

Fear Factor: Tim Blake Nelson has made the scariest Holocaust movie you'll ever see.
A film and a story not to be missed.
Tim Blake Nelson is a uniquely American artist. His body of work as a writer, director and actor is as eclectic as his origins. Like many New Yorkers, he is not from New York. A self-described "Jew from Tulsa," Oklahoma ("one of those folks from the Bible," he likes to say with a rural twang), Nelson's first film was the acclaimed Sundance favorite Eye of God. Set in a small Oklahoma town, the film was based on a play written by Nelson revolving around faith, fidelity and punishment and featured extraordinary performances from Martha Plimpton, Hal Holbrook and Kevin Anderson. As an actor, Nelson is perhaps best known for playing Delmar, the dingbat convict on the lam with George Clooney and John Turturro in the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? As a director of material that is not his own, Nelson just saw the release of the long-delayed and controversial film O, a contemporary adaptation of Othello set in an all-white Southern prep school.

But Nelson considers The Grey Zone his most personal work to date. A reporter with Entertainment Weekly recently observed that Nelson's collection of antique wristwatches from all over the world numbers over 120, and that Nelson is "a man obsessed with time." The characters in The Grey Zone are also obsessed with time, knowing as they do how little of it they have left.

In the mid-90s, Nelson encountered an essay in Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved about the Sonderkommandos - Jews forced to become part of the Nazi extermination machine. When he read Levi's work, he recognized that these men had been forced to face the ultimate moral dilemma. The Sonderkommandos, prisoners in the death camps, were selected to ready their fellow Jews for death in the gas chambers, and then to process their corpses after gassings, stripping them of clothes, valuables and even hair and teeth before incineration, ensuring that the huge death machine operated as efficiently as possible.

Those who refused to perform their duties were shot on the spot, and many chose suicide over execution. Those who accepted the labor lived for an extra four months at most, before being slaughtered themselves.

In exchange for assisting in the extermination of their fellow Jews, the Sonderkommandos were granted privileges unheard of in the rest of the camp - larger quarters, better food, books, alcohol and cigarettes, and the right to loot the belongings of the transports just exterminated.

"At the time I began researching their lives, I was an able-bodied Jewish man in my early thirties, so it could have been my life, my predicament. To this day I cannot tell what I might have done if faced with their impossible choice. It became personal," Nelson told Jewsweek.

A year earlier, Nelson had written a play about the escape from Germany of his mother's family, which happened just before Kristallnacht, when the Nazis made clear to the world their intention to rid Germany, and then Europe, of its Jewish population. He decided that his play added nothing new to the spectrum of work that had already examined the Holocaust, and put it aside. In contrast, one of the considerations that drew him to tell the story of the Sonderkommandos was that their history had never been explored on stage or film. "I grew up attending synagogue and Hebrew school, and I had never heard of the Sonderkommandos," Nelson explains.