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Kultur presents
Primo (2004)

"Hell must be like this."
- Primo Levi (Antony Sher), on Auschwitz

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: August 04, 2005

Stars: Antony Sher
Other Stars: Robin Thomson-Clarke
Director: Richard Wilson, Robin Lough

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:27m:37s
Release Date: July 26, 2005
UPC: 032031287891
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Let me first admit that I'm more than a little phobic about one-person shows. I've become gun shy after seeing a few too many evenings of insanely indulgent histrionics, with emoting and grandstanding that announces itself: Acting! And the fact that the subject of this show is the Holocaust made me deeply wary as well, on the lookout for the sort of cheap maudlin theatrics that turn the horrors of the Third Reich into vulgar applause. Add in the fact that the one actor in the cast also wrote the script for the show, and my teeth were ready for the gnashing to begin.

Surprise: Primo is a delicate, understated, quite deeply moving monologue, using one man's experience to explore the depths of the depravity of the concentration camps. Antony Sher plays Primo Levi, an Italian Jew, sent to Auschwitz in 1944, at age 25; Sher adapted Levi's memoir of his experience, If This Is A Man, for the play's script. Perhaps it's because Levi was a chemist by training; his story isn't dispassionate or clinical, certainly, but it is told carefully, in measured tones, without hyperbole or grandeur. And this of course makes it that much more profoundly devastating, this man bearing witness to the worst things that humans can and have done to one another. In our Oprahfied age in which anyone with a whiff of celebrity can get a book contract for the promise of telling all, this is a reminder, among other things, that memoirists without experience are subjecting us to the worst sort of solipsism, the stuff they should be saving for their 50-minute hours.

Sher is a rightly celebrated stage actor—I was fortunate enough to see him play Richard III—who has a theatrical, presentational quality that has seemingly kept him from a more extensive film career; and even though this is a filmed adaptation of a stage piece, Sher keeps the bombastics very much in check. The procedural horrors and humiliations that became a matter of course for those imprisoned in the Nazi camps is much of the substance of the piece; our own knowledge, and the absence of tales of mass slaughter, provide the chilling context that make Levi's story so powerful. The pecking order among the prisoners is particularly poignant; the number tattooed on your arm was an indication of who you were, where you were from, and the likelihood of your survival.

The story is told with just a modest amount of quite effective stagecraft—the only musical accompaniment is a single, mournful cello, the only scenery a chair on a stage of walls rendered in the brutal fashion of the camps. A couple of very tight shots and a few from an overhead camera call too much attention to the directorial aspect of things, as if the film director needed to leave a mark on this stage production; but this is just a modest distraction, at best. I do have more of a quarrel with the title, though, which seems overly familiar and a little light—if you were to do a one-man show about Gandhi, for instance, it might seem a little cavalier to call it Mohandas. Then again, using the man's first name was wiser than using his surname, which might lead the uninformed to think that it's a ninety-minute show about a pair of jeans. 

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: There's a flat, video-y feel to the transfer, but the material seems to be essentially unencumbered by imperfections.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: It's all audible, though the lower end of the register is sometimes a little thick with cello.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 8 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Behind Primo (21m:52s) features backstage interview footage with Sher and Richard Wilson, who directed the production for the National Theatre in London. Sher discusses his having read Levi's memoir as preparation for another play, launching the idea of this one; they workshopped the piece, and certainly the most emotional portion of the process was their trip to Auschwitz, giving a concrete and tangible reality to Levi's moving words.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Antony Sher's carefully modulated work as both writer and actor make this a poignant and moving telling of Primo Levi's horrific time in Auschwitz.


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