Primo Levi's Journey
Reviewed by David Sterritt
Produced and directed by Davide Ferrario; written by Davide Ferrario and Marco Belpoliti; cinematography by Gherardo Gossi and Massimiliano Trevis; edited by Claudio Cormio; music by Daniele Sepe; narrated by Chris Cooper. DVD, color, 90 mins., in English, Italian, German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Moldavian, Romanian, and Hungarian, with optional English subtitles, 2007. A Cinema Guild release, distributed by New Yorker Video.
The one DVD extra on The Cinema Guild release of Primo Levi’s Journey (La Strada di Levi) is a discussion with Davide Ferrario, who directed the film. At the beginning he says one of the most interesting things I’ve heard about Levi, the Jewish-Italian chemist who spent a year in Auschwitz, lived to tell the tale, and spent the rest of his life bearing witness to the Holocaust and its horrors. A couple of years before his death in 1987, says Ferrario, an interviewer asked Levi if in the present time, “when ideologies seem to be so mixed up, do you still believe in something?” Levi thought for a moment and then answered, “Yes. I believe in democracy.” The interviewer, clearly interpreting “believe” through the usual socio-religious haze, got excited and responded, “Democracy for you is actually a faith.” At which point Levi said, “No, it’s a technique.”
After recounting this exchange, Ferrario gives his own view of Levi’s statement, which he finds “revolutionary.” Today nations are willing to wage war for democracy, he says, because they make it “a value and not a mere technique, [with] a meaning so absolute that [they] are willing to die or even kill for it… obviously something that nobody would ever do for a technique.”
Ferrario is exactly right about Levi, and Levi was exactly right about democracy. But after this illuminating moment, it’s mostly downhill for the DVD extra and the documentary it accompanies. Primo Levi’s Journey is less about the author’s spiritual and psychological voyages than about the physical trip he undertook after Auschwitz was liberated—a trip that Levi later transformed into a momentous book, but which Ferrario and co-screenwriter Marco Belpoliti use to justify an expedition that lacks a clear purpose and has trouble staying on the road.
The movie was inspired by Levi’s second book, The Truce, known as The Reawakening in its American editions. His first memoir, If This Is a Man, aka Survival in Auschwitz, had sold a grand total of 1,500 copies when it appeared in 1947, so eager were Europeans to learn about the Shoah from an objective first-person account. That volume deals with Levi’s tribulations from his entry into the camp until the arrival of Soviet liberators in 1945, who were to free the captives and shanghai the others for postwar reconstruction work; arbeit macht frei, after all. The Truce, published in 1963, picks up precisely where the earlier book leaves off.
When the Nazis at Auschwitz fled in a panic, the inmates found themselves in worse conditions than ever. Although the camp’s minimal facilities for health and welfare had been intended only to keep a certain number of prisoners alive for slave labor, they’d been better than nothing; now the threat of being marched to a gas chamber was gone, but inmates were succumbing to starvation, freezing in their bunks, and dying by the score from disease, fatigue, and the poisons of ubiquitous filth. Levi escaped death, but his broken body and traumatized mind were in no condition to negotiate the chance events that started moving him not toward his native Turin but toward some unknown, unwanted, perhaps unreachable destination to the north. The Truce is the chronicle of this anarchic voyage, which was sometimes hopeful, sometimes hopeless, and frequently both.
The makers of Primo Levi’s Journey had what sounds like an interesting idea—to retrace this thousand-mile odyssey sixty years later, traveling through “a modern Europe that has both changed and remained eerily the same,” as the DVD packaging puts it. The movie was shot in 2005 over ten months, the same amount of time it took Levi eventually to reach home. (As critic Chris Neilson intriguingly notes, with an assist from Google Maps, the trip can now be made by car in less than fifteen hours.) The route is a peripatetic one, trekking from Poland and Romania through Hungary and Slovakia, then into Western Europe, and finally to Italy for the last stop. Among the people we encounter are author Mario Rigoni Stern, who reads some of Levi’s poetry; the legendary Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, whose 1977 classic Man of Marble contributes a few clips to the film; and a pair of American evangelicals (“We bring humanitarian aid and we also bring the gospel of Jesus Christ”) whose presence in Ukraine is easy to understand but whose presence in this movie is not. The sights we see are varied as well—a nationalist mini-riot in Ukraine, a multicultural market in Budapest, a neo-Nazi rally in Germany, poverty of such misery in Moldavia that emigration is the biggest business around, and wreckage so severe in the Chernobyl region that, the film informs us, a Ukrainian-American movie crew showed up there in 2004 to shoot Return of the Living Dead 4.
The picture’s Michael Moore moment comes in Belarus, where the filmmakers have to stop shooting for an hour and answer questions from the District Council for Ideology—just a rest break, really, but Ferrario cloaks it with irony via klezmer music on the soundtrack and amusing placards on the screen. The next sequence casts a skeptical eye on Belarus’s continued practice of collective farming, intercutting views of a present-day kolkhoz with uncredited shots from Eisenstein’s great Old and New (1929). Perhaps a serious point is intended here—plus ça change, and all that—but I smell a whiff of sarcasm that Levi, wry observer though he was, would certainly have frowned upon. At various points Chris Cooper reads a narration drawn from Levi’s texts, putting little interpretive savvy into the task; and the arrangement of those texts becomes highly problematic near the end, when they’re edited to reinforce the conclusion that Levi’s death, from a fall down a stairwell in 1987, was indisputably a suicide and not the ambiguous misadventure that some authorities find it.
The guiding themes of Primo Levi’s Journey appear to be that unnecessary suffering persists in Europe to this day, and that countries previously in the Soviet sphere of influence are still having a difficult time reversing the socioeconomic disadvantages of the system they lived under before the U.S.S.R. collapsed. These are urgent and depressing facts, but thoughtful moviegoers already know them, and even they will often find it impossible to tell what Ferrario’s attitude is toward the people, places, and things he puts on display. What is the point, for example, of the Ground Zero footage at the beginning? At bottom the film is merely a loose-limbed travelogue, casual and artless, yet oddly overproduced as well. (The needlessly wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio is definitely a bit much.) As honorable as the filmmakers’ intentions doubtless were, what they’ve come up with is unfocused and meandering. If this is Tuesday, it must be Prypiat…
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David Sterritt is Chair of the National Society of Film Critics and coeditor of The B List.
Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste, Inc.