What Awaits Us
In the very hour in which every threat seemed to vanish, in which a hope of a return to life ceased to be crazy, I was overcome—as if a dyke had crumbled—by a new and greater pain, previously buried and relegated to the margins of my consciousness by other more immediate pains: the pain of exile, of my distant home, of loneliness, of friends lost, of youth lost and of the host of corpses all around.
—Primo Levi, La tregua
Globalization makes everything the same everywhere. People may be more free, but they lose their identity.
“We don’t know what awaits us.” After being released from Auschwitz at the end of January 1945, Primo Levi traveled home. The journey, as he recorded in his book, The Reawakening (La tregua, or The Truce), took some 10 months, time he used to contemplate the world around him, changed and changing because of the war, both reflecting and utterly foreign to him. Davide Ferrario’s Primo Levi’s Journey traces that passage again, but differently. Pondering a world in flux, resilient and persistent, fearsome and familiar, the documentary travels from Auschwitz to Torino, through Poland and the Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia, and Romania, evoking Levi’s spirit more than recounting his experience.
“We set out to make the same journey as Primo Levi.” This was impossible, of course, in post-Communist Europe, and the film looks back and forward in time, emerging from hopelessness into a future that would have been impossible to imagine from within the camps. Narrated by Chris Cooper, the English language version has a sort of mournful tone, but it embraces surprises, open to “what awaits us,” no matter what it may be. Opening with shots of Manhattan’s Ground Zero, another beginning and end, the film takes up its journey proper at Auschwitz, on the 60th anniversary celebration. A German tour guide, Jacques Chirac, and TV cameras, all gather to mark the time, the loss and the lessons.
The film investigates whether these lessons might be absorbed or recognized, the meanings of memory, as cause or article of faith, source of identification and sorrow. Levi’s witnessing, so acute and durable, gives way here to official ritual and explanation, the Holocaust now history, shaping and propelling new experiences. If Levi’s book recounts his own outrage and evolving sense of “truce” (”[T]his is the awful privilege of our generation and of my people, no one better than us has ever been able to grasp the incurable nature of offence, that spreads like a contagion”), the film considers what comes next, how forgetting as much as remembering allows survival and limits movement.
At the crumbling steel plant of Nowa Huta, the Lenin Steelworks, where a force of 40,000 workers is now reduced to 8,000, the filmmakers interview Polish director Andrzej Wajda as he rides in the back seat of a car riding through empty streets. “What still burdens us is the older generation,” he says. “They don’t like to work and don’t know how… The younger generation, that’s our hope… because they think like Westerners.” As if to illustrate, a young woman steel worker stands with hard hat, determined and industrious, while old men carry trays of food in the pensioners’ canteen.
The film complicates the notion of “progress,” however, but also noting the absurdities of the present. In L’viv, the sister of singer Igor Bilozir recalls his murder in 2000, by Russian-speaking youths because he sang in Ukrainian. Such tension over language as a marker of identity existed during Levi’s time, as well (“The linguistic clash,” his text reads, “may become an ethnic and political one”), and, as Ruslana Bilozir recalls, “Language was the tool used by the Russians to dominate the Ukrainians,” Primo Levi’s Journey observes as well how changes have occurred despite such efforts. The small shrine to Bilozir in the town’s center is visited by older denizens, while younger people (such as two girls who open the segment “speaking in Jewish”) don’t pay much attention to these restrictions. They listen to American hip-hop.
Still, the film shows evidence of restrictions, as absurd now as ever. In Belarus, amid Communist busts and workers’ memorials, the filmmakers are stopped in mid-interview by the District Councilor of Ideology. As the camera records their herding into cars and then their (very tentative) interrogation in an office, the crew waits at the interview site. Captions note that they are then “helped” with their project for the next few days by the Councilor, as you see him suggest camera set-ups.
The Councilor’s awkward efforts to control the “image” of the collective farming community of Starye Dorogi don’t take into account the editing process, or the filmmakers’ dry wit. And so such efforts miss the possibilities of “art,” in a broad sense and as Levi wrestled with it. Memories cannot be forced, as they evade obvious restraints and find new expressions, even find new meanings in their various iterations.
Intercut with Soviet propaganda films, the contemporary footage (filmed in 2005) finds another ever-percolating past in Prypiat, where a survivor remembers the disaster at Chernobyl, his lost family and friends. “The city of children,” he says was transformed. Death, illness, and cover-up give way to attempts to recover. “After the evacuation,” he says, “Life lost its meaning.” And yet new meanings emerge inevitably. Cooper narrates, “It seems the world is headed for disaster and we limit ourselves to hoping its advance is slow.” The film links Levi’s discussion of his camp tattoo with shots of neo-Nazis in Munich who now remember their own stories with tattoos, and shows Budapest’s cemetery of Soviet statues, all large, blocky, wholly driven figures, now commemorating a failure to compel faith and hopefulness.
By the time the filmmakers arrive in Torino, where Mussolini’s dark and monumental architecture contrasts with sunny hillsides, Primo Levi’s Journey feels less over than just beginning. If some of its connections remain obscure, its storytelling is both sinuous and resounding. History, memory, forgetfulness—all comprise the present.