Antony Sher’s Primo Levi: Can the Holocaust Be Staged?

I feel conflicted about writing a review of Antony Sher’s embodiment of the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi in Primo, although Sir Antony’s achievement is very fine, magnificent even, restrained, important, honest and uncorrupted.

An actor, however great, relating the horrors of the death camps on Broadway is nothing I relish seeing. I can’t even accept that the Holocaust should be represented onstage or film. The awful, feel-good sentimentality of The Diary of Anne Frank isn’t for anyone with any sense. (She’s in the attic!) For me, the adorable Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, with its uplifting happy end, is, unwatchable—and worse, a moral disgrace.

However popular the numerous, award-winning TV concentration-camp dramas of the week might be, I see them as an obscenity interrupted by commercial breaks. However “sincere” Steven Spielberg’s co-option of the Holocaust is in the name of “remembering,” I walked out of Schindler’s List unable to take his sanctimonious Schindler, the Righteous Christian as Savior, and the Hollywood fakery of it all.

“Take One!” “It’s a wrap!” “Good job everyone!” “That’s an Academy Award–winning performance right there!” Without Mr. Spielberg—it has been commonly said—an entire generation of young Americans would never have heard of the Holocaust. A quick test: What do any of you remember about Schindler’s List?

Anything? It’s coming back now … a little, perhaps. The plot—vaguely. Liam Neeson was in it. The shooting scene was good. Powerful. Hit home. But what was it actually about? And if our memories are a bit shaky about the movie, what about the real godless thing?

In any event, what have these Spielberg-educated Americans really learned? What do they know?

They—we, almost all of us—can know next to nothing about the death camps. We who were not there can never know. Primo Levi knew the truth, and he spoke the truth, but he was history’s witness who also wrote uncompromisingly in his great books how history itself has become so simplified in the need to make life clear-cut by dramatizing the Holocaust that the outcome is its inevitable trivialization.

Levi wrote sternly in his last book, his masterpiece The Drowned and the Saved: “Anyone who today reads (or writes) the history of the Lager reveals the tendency, indeed the need, to separate evil from good, to be able to take sides, to emulate Christ’s gesture on Judgment Day: here the righteous, over there the reprobates. The young above all demand clarity, a sharp cut; their experience of the world being meager, they do not like ambiguity …. ”

Who is the drowned, who the saved? Was the survivor Primo Levi truly saved? He was presumed to have committed suicide at 67. What sorrow that man must have drowned in all his life, condemned to bear witness to the unimaginable.

Is it true, as Elie Wiesel says of Levi’s presumed suicide, that “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later”? And yet he lived to tell the world. There were no witnesses; he left no note. He plunged to his death off his balcony. But he was known to have been suffering from dizzy spells. The balcony rail was low. What if his death was a horrible accident? And what cruel joke of history is that? God’s joke on the world’s survivor.

But suppose Levi killed himself because life—mundane life, the pain of simply being alive—was in the end too much for him? What then? Could he never be just unhappily, depressively “normal”? The image lets us down somehow, as life lets us down.

The high-minded intellectuals with their nice clean hands who blame Levi for his apparent “suicide” are one of life’s tragic absurdities—the evil of banality. His death to them mocked their own cliché of the survivor’s manual: the Transcendence of the Human Spirit. “Good” was vanquished by its own hand. The Nazis won!

But if you were Jean Améry, the Austrian philosopher and resistance fighter who was tortured by the Gestapo—and is quoted by Levi in The Drowned and the Saved—the Nazis did win:

“Anyone who is tortured remains tortured …. Anyone who has suffered torture never again will be able to be at ease in the world, the abomination of the annihilation is never extinguished. Faith in humanity, already cracked by the first slap in the face, then demolished by torture, is never acquired again.”

Levi noted, “Torture was for him an interminable death.” Améry killed himself some 30 years later.

Perhaps Antony Sher sympathizes with some of my points about “staging” the Holocaust and the swirling confusions about the meaning of Levi’s life and death. I’m relieved to report that Mr. Sher has said how he believes it’s impossible to put Auschwitz on stage or film in any conventional sense. The convention is to reproduce and imitate the death camps. That’s the last thing he does.

He has adapted Levi’s first essential book, his 1947 If This Is a Man (better known here as Survival in Auschwitz), and taken as his model Claude Lanzmann’s great documentary, Shoah. It is the greatest of all Holocaust documentaries precisely because it avoids all newsreels of the camps and therefore all stock responses. His middle-aged witnesses relate their stories, and to our disbelief and horror we hear them as if for the first time.

So Mr. Sher appears as the survivor Primo Levi, bearded and middle-aged, to tell the story of Auschwitz. I’ve seen this leading British actor a number of times over the years, and this is the best performance he has ever given. There have been times when, being no fool, he knows how to lay it on (his amazing Richard III whizzing about the stage on crutches; his unquiet Macbeth). But in Primo, he achieves an acting miracle by not seeming to act.

He is acting, of course. He’s on a stage. We’re in the audience. But he does not perform. The singular achievement of Mr. Sher’s commitment to the awesome integrity of Primo Levi is also Primo’s flaw. It cannot be otherwise.

Levi was a scientist, and the scrupulous, unsentimentalized detail of his Survival in Auschwitz is clinical and innately “untheatrical.” Primo is no conventional drama or show.

“To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one,” Mr. Sher’s Levi tells us. “It has not been easy or quick, but the Germans have succeeded.”

This great actor delivers that astonishing line unemotionally, almost matter-of-factly. And yet it is surely one of the most horrifying statements we could ever hear.

Directed with admirable, spare clarity by Richard Wilson, Primo compels us to listen to things we know and will never know. May I just say to those who leap up enthusiastically at the end to give the ritual standing ovation that silence would be the greatest tribute Mr. Sher could receive, a pause, at least, before we go on our way.

Antony Sher’s Primo Levi: Can the Holocaust Be Staged?