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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Primo Levi’

Documenting Real Fiction

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

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 mwecker@gmail.com.

Accepting A Fateless Fate: A Holocaust Film To End All Holocaust Films

Wednesday, January 18th, 2006

Fateless (2006)

Directed by: Lajos Koltai

Produced by: Andras Hamori

Written by: Imre Kertész

Opened – January 6 in New York

Running Time: 140 minutes



One of Honore Daumier’s greatest works shows a troubled man sitting at a window. The caption loosely translates as “O moon, inspire me,” and the man looks out his window at the moon very much in need of inspiration. This 19th century piece is a lithograph, which means the shadows look particularly black and velvety, while the whites – like the moon – shine brilliantly. So dreary and depressing is the man’s room and body that the viewer can just make out colors and details beyond the minimal forms that Daumier renders. That is perhaps Daumier’s greatest strength – his ability to create such devastation with black and white that the picture seems to unfold in color, in sound, in smells.

Lajos Koltai’s new movie Fateless (2006), based on Imre Kertész’s novel by the same name, has a flavor of Daumier in it. It relies almost exclusively on black and white with some browns, but viewers can all but smell the filth, taste the dirt, tears, and blood, and add the colors like a horrifying paint-by-number.

Previously in The Jewish Press (10/23/2002), Michael Skakun wrote of Kertész’s novel as refusing “to indulge in rhetorical self-dramatization, a flaw that commonly mars accounts of Holocaust survival.” To Skakun, Kertész does not seek an uplifting message or any other emotion; instead, he “remains true to the unnameable experience itself, often the hardest thing for a writer to achieve. It is far easier to indulge in emotional grandstanding and metaphysical protest than to evoke the daily grit of a reality that defies description.”

Skakun’s observation applies to Koltai’s film as well. Strictly speaking, I can’t and shouldn’t review this film – not without immediately casting accuracy out the window. Kertész says he is exploring the inexplicable and naming the unnameable, and an effort to address such pursuits with a critical vocabulary appears a paradox, twice over. But in a sense, Koltai manages to find a name, precisely in his insistence, that there is no name. That move creates an open space in which criticism might enter.

The main character, a 14-year-old Hungarian boy named Gyuri Koves (Marcell Nagy), is abducted by a policeman on his way to work, and herded into a makeshift prison-barn with all the other yellow star bearers. The stunt, which initially appeared simply as a cruel cat and mouse game, lands the group in concentration camps. Gyuri manages to survive the camps in the same way Primo Levi does, via the infirmary. (Of course Levi is real, Koves is not.)

But the proof of Gyuri’s tale lies in the pudding. After his camp is liberated by the Americans, Gyuri finds himself in a series of conversations that befit the “Absurdist Theater”. Enter man. Man asks Gyuri if he ever saw a gas chamber. Gyuri answers frankly that he wouldn’t be alive, had he seen one. The man replies, “Thanks, that’s all I wanted to know.” Another Holocaust denier is born. Blackout.

Next scene. Gyuri stands on the bus; he has no ticket. The driver demands a ticket, to which Gyuri says he has none. So buy one, the driver insists. Gyuri says he has no money and he points to his leg. He tells the driver his leg hurts. The driver can see that he is still in his striped prison garb, but it takes another passenger who offers to buy Gyuri’s ticket to allow him to remain. The man asks Gyuri if the Nazis did dreadful things to him. “Naturally,” Gyuri answers. “It depends what you call dreadful.” The man is indignant, demanding how Gyuri can call something so unnatural “natural.” Gyuri is silent. Blackout.

Gyuri finally finds his relatives (his father never returns), and he is then questioned by them and by his neighbor – his childhood friend Annamaria – on the stairs. To them, Gyuri meditates, “Maybe, I don’t even exist.” “I died once,” he says, “I can’t be angry anymore.” But perhaps his most provocative line is his assertion that, “lying in wait for me like an unavoidable trap, is happiness.” The next time he is asked by someone about the camps, Gyuri says “I should talk about the happiness of the camps.”

But to call such a comment heretical, is to miss the point, entirely. Koltai’s effort in this film is, effectively, to critique Holocaust films, or more precisely, perhaps, to create a new sort. There are no answers in this film, which asserts that there is no hell (at least not in this world), but there were concentration camps. The film refuses to allow evil to hide behind fancy language – even the term “evil” itself – because such language distances the destruction from us and allows it to be classified as “other”, instead of something deep within us.

Early on, Gyuri describes the “simple secret” of his universe as, “I could be killed any time, anywhere.” This reality to Gyuri – this tangible, imperative reality – outweighs any anger or blame. And true to the film’s name, this realization on Gyuri’s part comes from his sense of fate.

Before arriving at the concentration camps, the guard who originally abducted Gyuri gives him a chance to flee. As the prisoners are marching – ultimately to be judged in the infamous line – they are forced to wait for a passing bus. Many who are “in the know” sneak off from the group and run, and the guard even looks Gyuri in the eye and motions with his head that Gyuri should take off. Gyuri looks him in the eye and stays.

Almost verbatim, an American soldier who liberates Gyuri’s camp tells him that he should not go home but, instead, flee to Switzerland where he will be embraced. Then, he suggests, Gyuri should come to America and go to college and study, like a normal kid. Gyuri mutters something about his father, and is on his way home to seek out his family.

Gyuri learns the lesson of fate quite quickly, and his transformation from Gyuri to number 64921 (“vier-und-sechzig, neun, ein-und-zwanzig) and then back to Gyuri again is a powerful Bildungsroman or tale of coming of age. And in that coming of age, Gyuri and the other prisoners of the concentration camp closely resemble Daumier’s forelorn figure. At one point in the camps, the inmates are asked if there are performers in their midst, who might entertain while the trains are being prepared. One group rises and sings “On a moonlit night, what does a girl dream, that her prince will come…”

Like Daumier’s pitiful, lonely, sickly man looking up to the moon for inspiration, the camp inmates look to the clouds and the moon for inspiration, for a dream to cling on to. So powerfully does Gyuri cling to that moon, that he manages – however astonishingly – to call it happiness, even when he leaves the camps and begins to reclaim his freedom. This artistic move, in one respect, critiques other artistic efforts to turn the Holocaust into a symbol. But in a far more interesting way, Fateless raises important questions by exploring a fate that is “fateless” and a name that is “unnameable”. It is not a contradiction. It is a powerful drive to explore the Holocaust in artistic form while trying, at all costs, to avoid an inherent minefield of superficially pious messages that have clung tenaciously to the perennial question of Holocaust art.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/accepting-a-fateless-fate-a-holocaust-film-to-end-all-holocaust-films/2006/01/18/

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