The film opens in October 1944, in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. A small group of Sonderkommandos, prisoners assigned to dispose of the bodies of other dead prisoners, are plotting an insurrection that, they hope, will destroy at least one of the camp's four crematoria and gas chambers. They are receiving firearms from Polish citizens in the nearby village and gunpowder from the UNIO munitions factory; the female prisoners who work in the UNIO are smuggling the powder to the men’s camp amid the bodies of their dead workers. When the women's activity is eventually discovered by the Germans they are savagely tortured, but they don't reveal the plot.
Meanwhile, a Hungarian-Jewish doctor, Miklós Nyiszli (Allan Corduner), who works for the Nazi scientist Josef Mengele in an experimental medical lab, has received permission from Mengele himself to visit his wife and daughter in the women’s labor camp. Nyiszli is concerned about the safety of his family and believes that Mengele’s orders will keep them from the gas chambers.
A new trainload of Hungarian Jewish prisoners arrives, and all are immediately sent to the gas chambers. As the group is given instructions about "delousing", a fearful, angry man in the group begins shouting questions at one of the Sonderkommandos, Hoffman (Arquette), who has been issuing the instructions. Hoffman beats him to death in an outburst of frustration, in an attempt to make the man stop talking. After the gassing of this same group, a badly shaken Hoffman finds a young girl alive beneath a pile of bodies. He removes her from the chamber, and, after informing the leader of the insurgency, Schlermer (Daniel Benzali), takes her to a storage room and summons Nyiszli, who revives her. The group decides to hide her in the children’s camp. While the prisoners hide her in a dressing room, SS-Oberscharführer Eric Muhsfeldt (Keitel) suddenly walks in. Noticing that one of the prisoners present, Abramowics (Buscemi), is there illegally, he shoots him, prompting the girl to scream and to be discovered. Nyiszli then takes Muhsfeldt outside and tells him about the uprising, but cannot tell him where or when it will begin. Muhsfeldt agrees to protect the young girl after the uprising is suppressed.
The insurrection begins, and Crematorium IV is destroyed with the smuggled explosives. All the Sonderkommandos who survive the explosions and gunfights with the SS are captured. They are held until the fire in the crematorium is extinguished, after which they are executed. Hoffmann and a fellow prisoner, Rosenthal (David Chandler), conclude that the girl will not be set free after she is forced to watch the executions. After all captives are shot, the girl is allowed to flee toward the main gate of the camp. Before she can run very far, Muhsfeldt draws his handgun and shoots her. The film closes with a voice-over recitation by the dead girl.David Arquette as Hoffman
Steve Buscemi as "Hesch" Abramowics
David Chandler as Max Rosenthal
Allan Corduner as Dr. Miklós Nyiszli
Daniel Benzali as Simon Schlermer
Mira Sorvino as Dina
Natasha Lyonne as Rosa
Michael Stuhlbarg as Cohen
Harvey Keitel as Eric Muhsfeldt
Kamelia Grigorova as the Girl
Velizar Binev as Otto Moll
Henry Stram as Josef Mengele
Lee Wilkof as Man with Watch
Jessica Hecht as Man's Wife
Hristo Shopov as Halivni
Brian F. O'Byrne as SS Untersturmführer
Valentin Ganev as Torturer
The film was based upon Nelson's play, adapted from Nyiszli's book.
A 90 percent scale "model" of the Birkenau camp was built near Sofia, Bulgaria for the production of the film using the original architectural plans.
The film was first released on DVD on March 18, 2003. It was released on DVD in the UK, in 2008.
The film holds 68% 'fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 82 reviews, with the consensus "A grim and devastating tale of the Holocaust." In 2009, Roger Ebert included it in his "Great Movies" series.
The film received the 2002 National Board of Review Freedom of Expression Award.