‘The Survivor’ is not about the boxing, but what comes after

A man with glasses and white hair in front of a wide background

Director Barry Levinson.

(Justin Kaneps / For the Times)

It was the memory of Uncle Simcha that prompted Barry Levinson to direct his latest HBO series, The Survivor. Levinson was a boy of 6 when a stranger showed up at the door of his Baltimore home. The mysterious figure was called Simcha and turned out to be the brother of Levinson’s grandmother. He stayed with the family for a short time, sleeping in an empty bed a few feet from Levinson.

“I hear him screaming in a language I don’t understand. He was throwing, spinning and saying these things and was obviously very upset. And then he fell asleep again,” Levinson recalls. “Night after night after night the same thing happened. After two weeks he moved out and eventually moved to New Jersey. And nobody really talked about him in the house.”

It wasn’t until years later, when he learned that Simcha was a concentration camp survivor, that Levinson began to put the pieces together. That’s why “The Survivor” about the real Auschwitz inmate Harry Haft, who fought to the death with fellow inmates for the amusement of his kidnappers, is actually not a boxing film, but a film about post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He suffered from that,” Levinson says of Uncle Simcha. “Nobody ever had a name for it. From the soldiers of World War II to the soldiers of Vietnam to the soldiers around the world who fought in these various things, many of them cannot get rid of the past and it haunts them, it affects their relationships. Harry Haft, he survived camp and then he had to find a way to really have a life after that.”

A man jogs along the beach.

Ben Foster in The Survivor.

(Jessica Kourkounis / HBO)

This on-screen life is lived by Ben Foster, who lost 62 pounds for the Auschwitz scenes. “If you’re in deficit, it just means you have less energy. Then it’s all about finding resources you didn’t know you had. I’m not comparing my experience to a survivor, but I could get as close to deficit as possible to find out where my resources are when I thought I didn’t have them,” says Foster, who appears in almost every frame in the film is. “So yes, taking off a shoe became tedious in a way that influenced the rest of the film. Because even if Harry gains weight, the skeleton is still inside and you carry that with you. And after going through that in a substantial and physical way, I knew it would help shape the rest of the picture.”

Although Haft had a short career in the ring, even losing to Rocky Marciano in 1949, he was not a boxer when he fought in Auschwitz. “He’s really struggling to survive, so he’s a little bit ruthless and he doesn’t have the moves of a professional boxer. So the approach has to be as chaotic as we see it on screen,” says the director.

Stunt coordinator Clayton Barber choreographed the film’s fight sequences, but mostly Foster and his ring partner scraped their way through in a semi-coherent manner. “Hits are hits,” notes Foster. “I’m not saying we try to turn each other off, but a little bit of contact wakes you up. Learning to box in deficit was a really interesting corkscrew.”

Intercut with cinematographer George Steel’s sombre black-and-white prison camp sequences are colorful post-war scenes set in New York City, where Haft searches for his long-lost love who may have died in the camps. For these scenes, as well as the final act, which is set in the early 1960s, Foster added £50. More challenging than the physical demands, however, was the emotional roller coaster ride of the role and the visit to Auschwitz during pre-production.

Ben Foster.

Ben Foster.

(Justin Kaneps / For the Times)

“This is literally a factory to kill people. It is incomprehensible. And then we have different types of guides who fill us in on different things that I think made their way into the film,” recalls Levinson, who worked from a Justine Juell Gilmer script used on the memoir by Haft ‘s son Alan Scott Haft from 2006 . “This story is about survivors. If you look at Ukraine and you see all these people, all these refugees who ultimately have to try to get out of there to avoid all the kinds of indiscriminate killings that are happening all over the country and bombing a train station where people are only try to get out, that’s inhuman. Some of them will be forever scarred by that post-traumatic stress that you can’t get past.”

Levinson and Foster were introduced in the late ’90s when the actor made his big screen debut in ‘Liberty Heights.’ He played a high schooler during the civil rights era who falls in love with a black girl played by Rebekah Johnson. “Barry shaped the actor I am today,” says Foster. “He will change something, he will encourage improvisation. He is deeply fascinated with human behavior and all of our human idiosyncratic foibles. It is a great pleasure to work with him again in this way.”

If nominated for an Emmy, it will be Levinson’s 12th with four wins. He also received three Golden Globe nominations, six Oscar nominations and a win for Rain Man. “It doesn’t get old. It’s nice to be doing something and somehow it’s recognised,” he says modestly. “It’s nice that the actors you’ve worked with or the cinematography get recognition.”

Next up for Foster is Hustle, starring Adam Sandler, and Emancipation, starring Will Smith. Levinson is preparing “Sheela,” starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas as Sheela Ambalal Patel of the controversial Rajneesh movement. He will also direct Francis and the Godfather, starring Oscar Isaac as Francis Ford Coppola, and has numerous other titles in development. Still going strong at 80, the prolific filmmaker has no intention of slowing down his illustrious career. Uncle Simcha would be proud.

Levinson on the set of "The survivor."

Levinson on the set of The Survivor.

(Jessica Kourkounis / HBO)

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-06-08/the-survivor-is-not-about-the-boxing-but-what-comes-after ‘The Survivor’ is not about the boxing, but what comes after

Sarah Ridley

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