November 1, 2007
Books: ‘Primo Levi’s Journey’ traces the path of a survivor
The documentary's roots lie in the Italian Jewish writer's long journey after his liberation in January 1945, from Auschwitz to his hometown of Turin on a train trip escorted by Russian soldiers for a 10-month zigzag course across much of Europe. It seems guided, or rather misguided, by an unknown hand and could have been mapped out by Kafka himself.
Levi and 600 other Italian camp survivors and ex-prisoners of war crossed from Poland to Ukraine, laid more than two months in Belarus, then traveled through Moldavia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany, finally reaching northern Italy thousands of miles later.
He wrote down the recollections of these wanderings in "The Truce" (published in the United States as "The Reawakening") many years after describing his one year in Auschwitz in his major work, "If This Is a Man."
In 2005, Italian filmmaker Davide Ferrario decided to mark the 60th anniversary of Levi's liberation by retracing the route with a camera crew. Intercutting footage from the 2005 journey with Levi's earlier observations on the same places, the film is disorienting in the beginning. Only gradually does it become clear that Ferrario is contrasting how much -- and how little -- has changed in the 60-year interval.
In the cities, Americanization and globalization have left their obvious marks. Intimate pubs, and corner stores have given way to McDonalds and supermarkets patronized by jean-clad natives and foreign immigrants. But, to his surprise, Ferrario found that in rural and farming areas, time has often stood still.
In Belarus, he encounters a perfect replica of the 1930s Soviet Union, as if preserved in amber. After being arrested as a suspicious foreigner, Ferrario is proudly treated by the local KGB to a grainy agitprop film of peasants celebrating the joys of working on a communal kolkhoz.
Old hatreds remain, as in Lvov, where young Russians beat a young singer to death for performing patriotic Ukrainian tunes, and in Munich, where neo-Nazis mourn the good old days.
Levi's 1945 observation of a planet "that prefers disorder to order and stupidity to reason" seems as apt as ever.
There are some truly Kafkaesque sights along the way. In Budapest, it is the Cemetery of Communist Statues, displaying huge sculptures of Lenin, Stalin and muscular workers with a sign, "We accept credit cards."
Like most Italian Jews, Levi grew up thoroughly assimilated and really awoke to his Jewishness only in Auschwitz. In one scene from his 1945 travels, Levi encounters two Yiddish-speaking girls and introduces himself as a fellow Jew. The girls reject him outright, saying, "You don't speak Yiddish, you can't be Jewish."
When Levi returned to Turin after the war, he resumed his profession as a chemist, writing intermittently. In 1987, he fell down a flight of stairs in his home and died. The coroner classified the death as a suicide, though Levi's family and some friends protested that he had died accidentally.
Ferrario believes that the writer took his own life, but, hesitating to use the word "suicide," simply states in the film that "he threw himself down the stairs."
Perhaps Elie Wiesel had it right, when, hearing of Levi's death, he remarked, "Primo Levi died 40 years earlier in Auschwitz."
"Primo Levi's Journey" opens Nov. 2 at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills.