‘The Survivor’ asks something of its audience – OpEd – Eurasia Review
By Jonathan Leaf*
Oscar and Emmy Award-winning screenwriter and director Barry Levinson adapted the true story of Holocaust survivor and professional boxer Harry Haft for HBO. Is this an apt summary of a long, upside-down career?
Barry Levinson is 80 years old. The Oscar-winning writer-director has had roles in many of the best movies and TV shows of the past half-century, and some of the worst.
This pattern of mixing abominable stinks with memorable hits has continued over the past decade. In 2014, he went out with humility, an Al Pacino vehicle about a once-famous actor dating a bisexual woman one-third his age. There’s a reason you haven’t heard of it. The following year saw the release of Levinson’s Rock the Kasbah, a comedy starring Bill Murray, which was set in that famous palace of laughter, Afghanistan. It has a 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The son of a Baltimore furniture salesman, Levinson got his start as a comedy writer (The Carol Burnett Show) and actor, and he’s tended to be at his best portraying ordinary people with affectionate fun. It was in this spirit that he made what remain his two best films, both of which are set in “Charm City”: dinner and tin men.
Thus, the factual drama of the Holocaust The survivor should be seen as a notable departure from anything he’s done before. Although this was Levinson’s 24th film, it was only the sixth that wasn’t a comedy, and none of these dramas demanded much from their audiences. Included on this list are the sci-fi action movie Sphere and thriller B Disclosure. Featuring Sharon Stone and Demi Moore respectively, these were the kind of images that remind you of that oft-quoted comment about Ben Affleck Paycheck: It was the best titled movie ever made. Much better considered are Natural and rain man. Still, both of Levinson’s films are clever commercial offerings that are as thought-provoking and “challenging” as the cat videos.
I confess that I am one of the few people who have an instinctive aversion to Holocaust films. What bothers me about them is that they usually give the audience an easy path to self-congratulation. Viewers are not asked to consider the possibility that they may have been entangled in the activities of a regime like the Nazis. Instead, they remind themselves that they think anti-Semitism and racism are wrong and that they never did something like those bad guys wearing those pale green uniforms and swastikas.
The survivor is sometimes manipulative, but it’s not that kind of movie. Based on a non-fiction book by Alan Scott Haft, it looks at the life of the author’s father, Harry Haft. A talented light heavyweight boxer, Haft managed to survive in a Nazi death camp by fighting with other inmates. This served as a source of amusement for the guards. Haft knew that every time he beat another member of camp in the ring, he was setting up that man’s death, even as he ensured his own chance of living another week. As Scheherazade had to continue her story every night to avoid execution, Haft was to remain undefeated. In telling this story, the film asks its audience to ponder fundamental questions of morality, forcing us to consider the extent to which we are all capable of complicity with evil.
The screenplay, by Australian TV writer Justine Juel Gillmer, is loose with the facts at times. Thus, one of the central characters, a journalist played by Peter Sarsgaard, is an invention, and the main romantic storyline of the film, which revolves around an American woman (Vicky Krieps) responsible for helping Haft (Ben Foster) find his long- lost love of the Old World, is quite different from the actual figure.
But many elements of the story are true. Haft indeed seems to have defeated something on the order of 70 camp sparring partners, men who were later gassed, cremated or otherwise murdered, and he lived with the guilt and shame that went with it. ensue for the rest of his life. In equal measure, Haft really fought Rocky Marciano, effectively battling the future undefeated heavyweight champion for the first two rounds of their fight.
The best thing about the movie is its performances. Levinson has stayed on as a director for as long as he has in part because of his ability to elicit great work from great actors, and all of his cast members are exceptional. This not only includes Foster as the troubled fighter, but also Danny DeVito as a Jewish trainer working for Marciano who secretly offers helpful advice to Haft, Krieps and Israeli actress Dar Zuzovsky in a critical but small cameo towards the end. end of the movie. The subtle and touching acting is reinforced by Levinson’s staging, modulated and discreet, and the sober score by Hans Zimmer.
Levinson also makes the sensible decision to present the concentration camp flashback sequences in black and white and the later scenes in color. This reduces the number of knockdowns that could have resulted from every occasion Haft bloodied a rival in the ring. The survivor effectively switches between the past and the present, gradually revealing to us what Haft has been feeling and doing and why he is subsequently unable to live at peace with himself.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have false notes. One of the worst is surely the most dated: the Nazis in the film speak English with German accents. (Shouldn’t that have come out with Colonel Klink on Hogan’s heroes?) Levinson also opts to make a real black-and-white villain out of the Nazi officer (Billy Magnussen) who decides to pull Haft from his work unit and use him as the camp’s “animator.” In Alan Scott Haft’s book, the character is portrayed with much more complexity.
There’s also the matter of Foster’s size. When he speaks or, more often, sullenly and full of rage, one can only be impressed by the power and honesty of the actor. And, unlike so many men who have played boxers, he has fast hands. But these are obviously the fists of a middleweight or even a welterweight. Although Haft himself was similarly sized, you never feel like you’re looking at a serious heavyweight contender. (And, of course, it is impossible not to make a comparison with angry bull, especially since Foster gained and lost tremendous amounts of weight to play Haft at various points in his life. Scorsese’s film, however, still retains the title of “the boxing movie to which almost all pugilism screen studies are compared.”)
The occasional moments when this fake and hokum pops up keep the movie from growing. Yet there’s a truth to the acting and to what the film asks of us – about morality and the possibility of keeping one’s religious faith in the wake of a great tragedy – that is real and touching. The ending is also touching, which is not what most of us expect from a current Hollywood movie. As the hero realizes he was blessed in his decision to come to the United States and make a new life here, the film ends with a rendition of “God Bless America” sung in Yiddish.
Whether The survivor is Levinson’s farewell film, it’s a dignified and ambitious film, however flawed.
*About the Author: Jonathan Leaf is a playwright who writes frequently on arts and culture.
Source: This article was published by the Acton Institute