From Sir, with lucidity.
Such is the towering treat of the performance of Sir Antony Sher in the title role of "Primo," the film version of the one-man play of a thousand emotions lived through by Primo Levi, hero/survivor of Auschwitz, whose If This Is a Man couldn't have been played better by any other man than Sher.
Any doubts, ask Levi's living kin, whose estate has granted the actor sole rights to essay the rite of survival on stage and on film the chemist whose autobiographical alchemy set a story of survival into one of freedom forever appreciated.
"Primo" is set for prime time on HBO Signature, where the film, shown in lights and shades of extraordinary character, premieres Tuesday, June 22, at 9 p.m., with subsequent screenings June 24, June 26 and June 28.
A one-man repository of the rich conflicts that ravaged Levi throughout his internment and interrogations at Auschwitz, Sher shares the survivor's sense of pride in Jewish secularism, turning not to the heavens for answers, but arguments.
The South African-born Sher's résumé reads like a safari through the wilds and rigors of some of literature's leading characters, from his breakout role of "Richard III" for the Royal Shakespeare Company to his nose for heart and heroism in "Cyrano de Bergerac" to his own sweet sonnet of a part in the film "Shakespeare in Love."
The Bard himself might have bartered for rights to the real-life character of Levi to play the Globe had he been alive during Elizabethan times. But Levi's life was spent edging out survival during a more hellish and heinous era, where life-and-death decisions could be dictated by understanding the language in which orders were barked at you.
Notes Sher: "Levi himself said your chances of survival depended on two things: following orders, which were [yelled at] you in a language you didn't necessarily understand as a prisoner; and getting a pair of shoes that fit," the better to traverse the terror-staked terrain of Auschwitz.
To be or not to be was an eternal question at the camps: "There is something Shakespearean in Levi's view of the world," says Sher.
And the actor knows from authoritative authors; he is one himself, detailing in sublime story lines the preparations and preoccupation it took to bring If This Is a Man to the stage, in his witty and wonderful backstage-bonanza Primo Time (2005).
A Certain Chemistry
It all bubbles to the surface on screen.
"Because of the chemist that he was, Levi studied, observed everyone around him," says Sher. "Right in the middle of violence that surrounded him, he was able to study it all quite calmly."
If the chemistry Sher has with the character is incredible, it is nevertheless one which needs the catalyst of time to get over. Sher is one man who may have had his fill with one-man shows; "Primo" is his first and possibly last, its intensity enervating and strength-sapping in preserving this Jewish triumph of the will that was the warrior Levi.
"Which is why I was so pleased that HBO and the BBC were able to film it," preserving Primo's preternatural candor and remonstrative recall of what man had made of man at the camps. "We often think we know what it was like to die in Auschwitz, but what was it like to live day to day in Auschwitz?"
Not, he cautions, that "Primo" is primed to give the exact external diurnal feel of what it meant to be living in Levi's conditions. For that reason, adds the actor/author/playwright, there was never an attempt to approximate Auschwitz itself on stage or film.
"When going through the book and planning the stage production" — which Sher took worldwide in short engagements following its Brit premiere — "it was important, rather than create actual images, to let the words of Levi" speak for themselves.
And they bespeak a parsed poetry rather than pulsing polemics. Indeed, Sher shifts away from praise, giving credit instead to the leviathan work that was Levi's rather than his own work of adaptation.
But he is so adept and talented at distilling Primo's dance on the precipice of madness and reason — Levi, long troubled by depression pre-Holocaust, died in 1987 from a fall down a flight of steps in what has been disputed as a suicide — Sher did capture not just Levi's essence, but a 2006 Drama Desk Award in the process.
Is it really so surprising that Sher's show was inspired by the film "Shoah," in which survivors and others, "people dressed like us," says Sher, shared their remembrances, with director Claude Lanzmann using talking-head harrowing tales rather than graphic footage of films from the era?
Maybe, hopes Sher, the film of "Primo" — directed by Richard Wilson, who also did the honors for the play — will forever find a place in memory, too, as a frame of reference for future scholars, and even children.
After all, reminds Sher, himself a patron of the the Holocaust Educational Trust in the United Kingdom, where he resides, "Levi was hugely dedicated to educating others about what he had gone through."
It is said that there are survivors who won't utter a word about their experience post-Holocaust and others who won't stop talking about it. "Before the war, Primo was a reserved shy man. But after … you couldn't stop him from talking; he had to tell people what had happened."
Tellingly, "Primo" is primed to do just that. In a word, the film is faithful to the words of the survivor himself. "It was part of my promise to his family," says the protean Sher.
And in "Primo," the promise is fulfilled brilliantly.