On October 19th, 1945, Primo Levi, an Italian Jew and chemist, finally returned to his home in Turin, Italy after having spent 11 months at Auschwitz and another harrowing ~9 months on a circuitous, long journey via Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The Truce is a movie about that journey, during which time, he also began his writing career.
Given the odds of survival at Auschwitz and the difficult route he had to take to get home, it was something of a miracle that he made it alive. The traumas of both the camp and the journey left permanent scars that never healed over the rest of his life, as they had done for countless others. When he died in 1987, Elie Wiesel, a fellow Holocaust survivor, remarked that “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier.”
And, yet, during those forty years after his release and return home, Levi wrote some of the most enduring works related to World War II and its after-effects — essays, short stories, memoirs, etc.
One such work was a memoir, The Truce, (known as ‘The Reawakening’ in the US) written in 1963, and detailing that journey from Auschwitz to Italy. In 1997, Francesco Rosi, an Italian director, made the movie in English and with a non-Italian lead, John Turturro. Tonino Guerra, the scriptwriter, was himself a concentration camp survivor. Both writer and director brought their skills of Italian neorealism cinema to bear on this work as well. Turturro, though a US citizen, is of Italian origin and, as of 2011, has dual citizenship of Italy and the US.
A brief word about what this movie is NOT: it is not a sentimentalist or violent portrayal of World War II. In fact, there are hardly any Nazis shown at all. And what I liked best is that it doesn’t try to fling strong messages in your face as many movies about WWII tend to [I’m looking at you, Schindler’s List].
Rather, it is a slow, quiet portrayal of a man’s interior journey even as he takes an exterior one. And, of all the WWII retellings out there, this one focuses on that in-between life, when people were neither prisoners nor free and trying to re-acclimate to not just their new lives but to living itself.
The particular period that the story is set in, after the war ends and before peace really begins, was also one of great uncertainty and confusion. As Keith Lowe said, in the introduction of his newest award-winning book, Savage Continent, post-WWII Europe, in the years directly after the war ended, was devastated and destroyed beyond description:
Imagine a world without institutions. No governments. No school or universities. No access to any information. No banks. Money no longer has any worth. There are no shops, because no one has anything to sell. Law and order are virtually non-existent because there is no police force and no judiciary. Men with weapons roam the streets taking what they want. Women of all classes and ages prostitute themselves for food and protection.
In terms of cinematic style, this movie subscribes to what is known as the Pasolinian “cinema of poetry” which synthesizes both extreme simplicity and extreme stylization. For example, beautifully-framed picture-like shots to move the story along rather than relying on the conventions of language / words / dialogue. Another example: during various points, Turturro delivers various fragments of Levi’s writing in voiceovers rather than actual dialogue and these are very powerful when matched with the brief black-and-white shots of Auschwitz flashbacks. This verbatim text is delivered in a quiet, slow manner that allows us to experience his character’s pain-filled attempts to return to humanity. One more: Music is used sparingly, with simple melodies played with only 1-2 instruments, except when it is to show the ex-prisoners enjoying remembered pieces of music they’re able to play with abandoned pianos and violins and their lost voices.
The story begins with black and white stark shots of 4 Russian army men on horses riding up in a bleak, wintry landscape, to free the Auschwitz prisoners. They look, initially, much like the 4 horsemen of the Apocalypse rather than saviors. There are several trucks and people are loaded into them even as they are dazed and unable to fully comprehend their freedom. Most of them are gaunt, sickly and have that haunted, otherworldly look. Turturro’s Levi is also one such character and speaks in low, measured, tones when he absolutely has to, but no more.
There are brief stays at interim camps, also desolate, but at least there’s freedom to come and go aimlessly. A Greek gypsy, Il Greco, played delightfully by Yugoslav actor Rade Šerbedžija, joins Levi part of the way and provides both street-wise philosophy as well as comic shtick. For example: “When there is war two things remember: shoes, then food, because who has shoes, finds food.” Levi mentioned this in his Paris Review interview:
Have you read my book The Reawakening? You remember Mordo Nahum? I had mixed feelings toward him. I admired him as a man fit for every situation. But, of course, he was very cruel to me. He despised me because I was not able to manage. I had no shoes. He told me, Remember, when there is war, the first thing is shoes, and second is eating. Because, if you have shoes, then you can run and steal. But you must have shoes. Yes, I told him, well you are right, but there is not war any more. And he told me, Guerra es siempre. There is always war.
When they part for the first time, Il Greco leaves Levi a sturdy pair of shoes.
For a brief time, Levi gets a job at an infirmary, cataloging medicines. This is where he first meets people who are beginning to come to terms with being left alive and finding it difficult because, at Auschwitz, they had resigned themselves to death and given up caring about their desires and their lives. At this stage, Levi starts writing his diary with a pen given to him for his cataloging work.
One beautiful scene in one of the interim camps is of the Russian soldiers and ex-prisoners mingling and entertaining themselves. A handsome Russian soldier happily dances on stage to Fred Astaire’s “Dancing Cheek to Cheek”, except that he’s still in uniform, with only his unsheathed sword for a partner, which he flings about with smooth flourishes. He is cheered, for his joy is infectious. And then, slowly, hesitantly, some of the men walk up, with painful shyness, to some of the women, and wordlessly lead them to dance. And, as the couples sway, you know that what they’re enjoying most is not the music or the dancing but simply the act of being held against another warm, soft body and of holding one in their own arms. No words are needed in such a scene that speaks volumes by itself.
As the odd assortment of travelers finally gets on a train to go home, the movie starts losing some of its bleached look and gaining color. There is some bonding among them with stories shared of who’s waiting for them, how they got to Auschwitz, etc. Levi is mostly silent during these times, except to respond, at one point, to a friend that “God cannot exist as long as Auschwitz exists.”
Unfortunately, as with everything else, even the rail tracks are in ruins. Their train disconnects and the group has to walk towards Minsk in Russia to find another one. Along the way, they see Germans, many of them now prisoners themselves. At one farm, they try, with many gestures, to beg a Russian family for food and Levi finds his humor returning as he mimics a chicken running about clucking and laying eggs. It is a touching moment – discovering that he still has the capacity within him to laugh again.
They run into Il Greco again who is now running a brothel and enjoying as good a life as possible, given the circumstances. Turturro’s gentle, low voice describes him, with some affection, as “Master by morning, Teacher by afternoon and Older Brother by evening.”
Levi also meets a female prisoner from Auschwitz who is shunned by the rest for being a “Nazi whore”. In a cabin in the woods, these two broken souls come together like old friends re-discovering each other rather than strangers who had only seen each other momentarily through barbed wire fences. Their moment together is almost as if each is trying to soothe the wounds of the other. Again, no words are necessary.
Eventually, the long, zigzagging journey through Poland, Russia, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Germany brings Levi to Turin and to his home. The streets are deserted and the buildings are broken edifices. Yet, as he climbs the stairs, not knowing who or what he will find, he is engulfed by the women of his house.
The last scene is the most haunting. Turturro, as Levi, sits behind a desk, his striped prison jacket lying on top of it and his ID number on his arm visible. He looks straight, unblinking, into the camera as his voiceover tells us:
You, who live secure in your warm houses, who return at evening to find hot food and friendly faces, consider if this is a man who labors in the mud, who knows no peace, who fights for a crust of bread, who dies at a yes or a no. Meditate that this took place. [See Footnote]
In the book, Levi wrote at the end:
Now everything has changed to chaos. . . . I know what this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it; I am in [the camp] once more and nothing is true outside [the camp]. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses.
And, for all the rich, inexhaustible literature, cinema, art, poetry that the two World Wars have inspired, in the end, what we cannot forget is those few lines.
A few last words about John Turturro’s acting. In all the years that I’ve watched this amazing actor, he has embodied his characters so fully and completely that it is hard to go from one of his movies to another without entirely shaking off the effect of the previous portrayal. And this, despite the fact that his range is so wide and varied. For this movie, Turturro spent years reading all the material over and over. He studied Levi and WWII as if preparing for a college degree. All this is heart-wrenchingly evident in every gesture, every look, every stance, and every word.
If you missed this movie when it came out 15-16 years ago, do watch it now. Trust me when I tell you that there are images and scenes that will stay with you for some time.
The ending lines were from Levi’s memoir: If This is a Man. The entire poem is actually much more pointed — see below. It is a Judaic prayer or “shema”.
You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.