“The Survivor”: Barry Levinson films the life story of Auschwitz survivor Harry Haft.
“Harry Haft” stayed on the so-called “Black List”, an annual industry survey of promising but still unfilmed scripts, for a few years – then the boxer’s life story was picked up by the cable and streaming broadcaster HBO. In fact, the tragic biography of the Auschwitz survivor, who died in 2007, seemed to lend itself to the cinema – at least if you take Hollywood conventions as a benchmark. Deported to the extermination camp at the age of 16, the Pole had to take part in 76 boxing matches, all of which he won. That was his only chance of survival, because the losers were murdered by the National Socialists immediately afterwards. The fighting took place in the Jaworzno camp, a coal mine north of Auschwitz. This terrible story would probably not have become Hollywood in its horrific hopelessness, but it goes on.
In April 1945, Haft managed to escape. In 1948 he emigrated to New York, where he began a short career as a prizefighter – this time in mafia-controlled exhibition fights, including against the famous heavyweight world champion Rocky Marciano. After the predictable defeat, he retired from boxing in 1949 and opened a vegetable shop. Haft told his son Alan Scott, who published a book about his life (One Day I’ll Tell Everything) in 2006, that he had hoped his publicity as a boxer would draw the attention of his childhood friend. Even if there was little hope that she could have survived the Holocaust. Eventually he married the employee from the Displaced Persons Office, who gave him so little hope of finding his girlfriend.
None other than Barry Levinson has taken on the material, which was already adapted as a graphic novel in 2011 by the illustrator Reinhard Kleist. For the 80-year-old Oscar winner of “Rain Man”, it is the first feature film since 2006, which alone made us curious about “The Survivor”.
In fact, his approach initially seems the most obvious. The scenes from the extermination camps take up almost half of the two-hour running time. As is often the case in feature films about the Holocaust, they cannot represent the horror, even if they are reminiscent of documentary footage in washed-out black and white. In the original English version, the heavy accents of European actors create an unintended alienation effect. One gets closer to the senseless killing and horrifying bargain for survival in other parts of the film that deal with Harry’s trauma.
60 pounds starved
Ben Foster, who starved himself at sixty pounds for the flashbacks, delivers an unnervingly realistic portrayal. He’s reminiscent of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. Above all, it is the chamber play scenes with Vicky Krieps as his wife Miriam that make this film unique among works on this subject. The Luxembourg native mixes chunks of Yiddish lightly in her unmistakable, charismatic, hush-hush manner of speaking. Also noteworthy is a scene about the afterlife of anti-Semitism. Loudly announced as a survivor and “Proud of Poland” before his New York fights, Haft has to hear shouts of “Back to Auschwitz!”
As with the television series, which first introduced the term “Holocaust” into the German language, the question is: How much Hollywood can Hollywood allow itself? Where is the line between representation and spectacle? And would it really have been a trivialization of the subject if the realistic camp scenes had been dispensed with entirely?
Levinson and screenwriter Justine Juel Gilmer seem to accept them rather than work them out. Her forte is the life-giving moments, and here, again, there’s a lot to learn from classic Hollywood. For example, the correct placement of a Jewish joke in a romantic beach scene. Or the cast of the lovable supporting role of Rocky Marciano’s Jewish trainer with Danny DeVito: For three days he secretly tutors the opponent who has no chance – so that he at least loses with decency.
In fact, 44 years after the television series of the same name, the Holocaust film has almost become a genre of its own in Hollywood. It is currently expanding to include trauma research and directly address future generations. It is still rare to do without historical naturalism in the flashbacks or to use the artistic element of omission, as Andrzej Munk did in his classic “The Passenger” back in 1963. In any case, Barry Levinson has once again created an important late work that takes him to the top shows his remarkable acting work.
The Survivor. USA 2021. Regie: Barry Levinson. 129 Min.