Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson’s new film, The Survivor, the wrenching story of a man forced to box at Auschwitz to survive, had its world premiere screening at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 13.
The soul-searching movie is the true story of Holocaust survivor Hertzko Haft (known as Harry) and is based on the book Harry Haft, written by his son, Alan Scott Haft.
Harry Haft was born in Poland in 1925. In 1942, he was deported to Auschwitz and then sent to the Jaworzno slave-labour camp, a place where stronger prisoners were sent for boxing matches. Haft fought in and survived 76 fights. The unspeakable reality was that Haft’s survival hinged upon his opponents’ deaths. Each fatality adds to Haft’s guilt and shame.
It was important to Levinson (Paterno, The Wizard of Lies) to re-create every gruesome detail of the infamous concentration camp. “We wanted it to feel so credible,” he told The CJN in an interview. “You are going to be haunted by it as he [Harry] was haunted by it, so you understand the level of trauma that he can’t seem to put aside.”
Drawing upon a profound early memory, Levinson recalled being frightened by the night terrors of a man who came to stay at his childhood home. “About 1948, I was a little kid… a man came to the door and it turned out it was my grandmother’s brother,” he said. “We had a small house and they put him in my bedroom on a cot.”
Levinson remembered his relative woke up yelling in an unfamiliar language, night after night. “Something was happening in his sleep that was scaring and upsetting him… after two weeks he suddenly left.”
Cut to 16 years later, when Levinson was chatting with his mother and she referred to “when Simcha was in the concentration camp.” Levinson realized suddenly that his great-uncle Simcha had been haunted by memories of the Holocaust.
“Jump ahead these many, many years later,” said Levinson. “And I receive a script—a true story about Harry Haft, who was in the camps… and that character suffers post-traumatic stress disorder. And I am thinking, well, that is what Simcha had!” Levinson became fascinated with how a person goes on to live their life when nightmares from the past continue to terrorize them.
Haft’s story begins in Belchatow, where he is in love with the spirited Leah, played by Israeli actress Dar Zuzovsky.
“This story was very close to my heart because Harry was in the same camp as my grandfather,” said Zuzovsky. “She is the hope and inspiration of Harry’s unyielding desire to survive and someday be reunited with her.”
The film shifts between black-and-white flashbacks of traumatic memories of the camps and the present story of postwar life in America where Haft fights as a professional boxer. Tortured by the uncertainty of what has become of his lost love, we watch as Haft gets in the ring with boxing legend Rocky Marciano to make sense of his past and reclaim the life that was stolen from him.
To prepare for the physically and emotionally demanding role, Ben Foster transformed into Harry Haft with remarkable weight shifts. He lost over 60 pounds, and then regained all of the weight and more to complete the postwar scenes. Foster also worked with a dialect coach and Yiddish expert to develop an authentic accent and learn Haft’s speech patterns.
In 2007, Haft was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He died of cancer in November of that year at the age of 82.
Directed and produced by Levinson, The Survivor stars award-winning actor Ben Foster (Leave No Trace, Hell or High Water) as Harry Haft. The film also stars Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread, The Girl in the Spider’s Web), Danny DeVito (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Dumbo, Twins), Peter Sarsgaard (Jackie, Blue Jasmine, The Looming Tower), Saro Emirze (Wilsberg, Bad Banks, Tatort), Dar Zuzovsky (Hostages, Pamta, Punch), and John Leguizamo (Latin History for Morons, Moulin Rouge, John Wick).
Watch The CJN’s full interview with Barry Levinson here: