Primo Levi’s Journey
Directed, written and produced by Davide Ferrario
Narrated by Chris Cooper
Cinema Guild, 92 minutes, unrated.
What role can a documentary film assume when facts cannot be agreed upon and truth is spelled with a lower case “t”? Where is the line drawn between documentary, memoir, creative non-fiction and fantasy? Can memories truly be conveyed from witness to audience through language alone?
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a documentary film, which significantly affected the development of realism in film, “shapes and interprets factual material for purposes of education or entertainment.” In fact, the Encyclopedia explains, the Nazi Government was one of the earliest and greatest proponents of the medium in its propaganda films (though certainly the quality of the films and their messages are widely discounted). But as Tim O’Brien has suggested in his memoir The Things They Carried, the truth is often complicated, and it has been known to differ when considered from alternative perspectives.
Whether historians or laypeople, witnesses shape and create their accounts of events and “own” them. Some intentionally lie, exaggerate and mislead, while others honestly try to ally themselves with the truth but will, nevertheless, inadvertently cloud it.
One of the best thinkers to respond to this sort of interrogation of postmodern history and documentation was the Italian-Jewish writer, Holocaust survivor and chemist, Primo Levi, who famously authored If This Is a Man. Though being a historian of sorts, Levi was skeptical of histories and memoirs. “Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument,” he once wrote. “The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even increase by incorporating extraneous features.”
Perhaps Levi’s belief in malleable memories that evolve in an organic, almost inherent process would have led him to approve of the new film Primo Levi’s Journey, whichcalls itself “a picaresque road trip through history.” The film presents a modern voyage that follows Levi’s own 1945 journey through Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Rumania, Hungary, Slovakia and Austria.
Levi’s 1,000-mile trip to his home in Turin, Italy was made after his liberation from Auschwitz. But the war still underway, and rather than being hailed in the streets with balloons and parades, Levi found himself ignored or further victimized to the extent that he felt he was once again inside the camps.
A fisherman in Romania as seen in Primo Levi’s Journey. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.
Sixty years later, Davide Ferrario has retraced Levi’s path. However, Ferrario’s journey leads him through democratic rallies and neo-Nazi demonstrations. The film incorporates footage for Ground Zero, and asks what common ground can be found between 9/11, the Berlin Wall and Levi’s Holocaust memories. Ferrario’s narrative freely oscillates between his own footage and historical documentation. Drawings and propaganda films of Ukrainian political figures denouncing foreign music mix with graffiti covered walls in Ukraine, where Yiddish speakers assure Ferrario and his crew that they cannot be Jewish because they do not speak Yiddish.
Many Holocaust documentaries frighten viewers not only with the terrifying face of evil and destruction, but also with the wholly “otherness” of genocide. In black and white, the film conveys to viewers who are not “survivors” that the Holocaust happened in the past, and viewers should not dare project themselves into the picture. Their role instead, is to remember but never – in any way – to try to experience. Experiencing the Holocaust is simply unfathomable, unless you survived it.
Primo Levi as a young man as seen in Primo Levi’s Journey. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.
Not so Primo Levi’s Journey. This journey is in color, and it shows living people going about their daily lives, from caring for their grazing cows to feeding their children to playing chess. The message it conveys is that viewers can lead themselves through their own journey, through their own thoughts and ideas that can shed light to them on what the experience of the Holocaust did to shape survivors and victims. Even if viewers can never become witnesses of the Holocaust, they can at least become better appreciative of the magnitude of the genocide.
One of Ferrario’s scenes captures bikers on a geese-filled road, while another offers a panoramic view of grazing pastures in Moldova. In a market, one woman tells the crew that they should film the houses without electricity and modern amenities, rather than the bustling marketplace. She tells the director that she has a degree and still works in the marketplace, but when he asks her if she will expound on the difficulties she encounters in an interview, she refuses an interview, because “I’d lose my job tomorrow.”
Most compelling is the footage from Austria, when Ferrario’s crew attends a neo-Nazi meeting. The footage begins with an image of Hitler’s birthplace, and then switches to a meeting led by comrade Ollert, regional secretary of the Party and area director, which was attended by audience members with “Aryan Hope” tattooed in German on their heads.
Ollert is an unimposing man, with a loud voice and “geeky” glasses. Audience members could double as art students seen in most American colleges, and the room fills with smoke that could become a jazz bar if the speaker wielded a trumpet rather than rhetoric about the Motherland. Party members admit that German history cannot be overturned or forgotten, but say unequivocally “the negative image of Germans must be corrected.” Meanwhile, protestors outside the meeting chant, “Nazis go home!”
Primo Levi as seen in Primo Levi’s Journey. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.
Ferrario masterfully plays quotes from Levi over the footage, in which Levi wished everyone in Austria would interrogate him and learn about Auschwitz, but no one would meet his eyes. When he felt he had the most to tell, no one seemed remotely interested in hearing it.
This, of course, is the problem not only with Levi’s personal journey in 1945, but also in the genre of Holocaust-commemorating art. Most artists who deal in Holocaust documentaries feel that the message is so important, that the method is sure to limit the potency of the experience insofar as it uses art rather than just dry facts and footage.
Ferrario takes a great chance in Primo Levi’s Journey in choosing to tell a different story in the hopes of illuminating Primo Levi’s own story. The risk is that viewers will be led astray by non-sequiturs and, indeed, Ferrario’s tale often is unfocused and somewhat chaotic as it leaps about. But the potential rewards inherent in such an endeavor are bringing a new, creative face to not only Holocaust documentaries but to documentaries in general. In no way does Ferrario’s journey approach that of Levi, trudging home for 1,000 miles with only his nightmares to keep him company.
But Ferrario, by creating a new narrative just as Levi did, shares other common ground with the chemist-memoirist. He tells a modern version of Levi’s tale that is sure to appeal to modern audiences that find it easier to connect to color footage of living characters, rather than black and white footage of destruction. There is a place for both forms of narrative, but Ferrario is not commemorating so much as leading his viewers to internalize and personalize.
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.