Director Barry Levinson, 80 (Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam), tackles his toughest subject in The Survivor (HBO and HBO Max, April 27), starring Ben Foster as Harry Haft, who was forced to fight 76 other prisoners at Auschwitz to entertain SS officers, who bet on him and shot losers. “Harry killed a guard in his fight to survive and his struggle to reach freedom,” Levinson says.
Haft escaped to America and became a pro boxer who fought world heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano, saying, “After all I’ve been through, what harm can a man with gloves on his hands do me?”
Haft hoped that the headlines about his fights would be noticed by his first sweetheart, with whom he’d lost touch after the war, and reunite them. She’s played by Israeli actress Dar Zuzovsky, whose grandfather was in the same concentration camp as Haft. Danny DeVito and John Leguizamo play Haft’s American trainers, and Vicki Kreps (Phantom Thread) plays Miriam Wofsoniker, the wife who eventually helped Haft overcome his trauma. Billy Magnussen is brilliantly chilling as Haft’s Nazi fight promoter. Foster’s performance is powered by his thoughts of his own grandparents, refugees from the Russian invaders who murdered millions in Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s. Foster and Levinson both think that Haft’s story resonates today.
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USC Shoah Foundation executive Stephen Smith calls The Survivor “one of the best contributions to Holocaust filmography since Schindler’s List.” It debuts on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).
In order to get historical details right, from the shoes and hats to the accents, Levinson went to Auschwitz. “The first thing that strikes you when visiting Auschwitz is that this was a factory to kill people on a massive scale,” he says. “It is impossible to ever understand the horror these people faced, and it was abundantly clear that for many who survived, those nightmares would hover over their daily lives.”
Levinson knows this from personal experience, because at age 5 he spent a few weeks sharing his bedroom in Baltimore with his Holocaust-survivor uncle Symcha. “Night after night I would wake up to him moaning in a language I didn’t understand. So when the script for The Survivor came around, I immediately thought of Symcha and what we would now refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Haft was similarly haunted, and sometimes volatile and abusive to his loved ones. He’s not a character as simply heroic as Anne Frank. “Why tackle a story with unsettling moral gray areas?” Levinson says. “Not everything is simplistic or black-and-white. Human behavior is never simplistic to begin with. It is complicated on a personal level, it’s complicated on a political level, and ultimately, you need to challenge certain questions and at the same time find a way to engage an audience.”
Still, there was triumph as well as trauma in Haft’s life. “There are uplifting, inspiring aspects of Harry’s story,” Levinson points out. “He ultimately found some peace through the understanding and strength of his wife. At the end of the day, he was not just a survivor. He was able to finally find contentment.” And seven months before his 2007 death, Haft was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.