Cinema has spoken of the Holocaust in many different ways, even in recent years there have been films that have tried to show us unpublished stories.
A different and more in-depth vision of a drama that has marked the history of humanity.
Remembrance Day has become a constant appointment even for those who love cinema, the one made of truth, often terrifying, of a desire to preserve memory as a container of lessons never to be put aside. Among the films that should be rediscovered and certainly re-evaluated on this theme, there is one released last year by HBO and which has not been valued as much as it could: Harry Haft: Storia di un Sopravvissuto ( The Survivor ), signed by none other than the great Barry Levinson and with a Ben Foster as the sensational protagonist of one of the most poignant and raw biopics of recent years.
A surprising and impactful biopic
Few stories deserve more attention than that of Harry Hart , born Hertzko Haft , born in Bełchatów in Poland, one of the many millions of Jews who were engulfed in the Nazi fury. Born in 1925, Haft was naturally like millions of others imprisoned and forced to do forced labor in various concentration camps, until in 1943 he was interned in none other than Jaworzno, one of the satellite camps of Auschwitz Birkenau. Here he was noted for his physical strength and temper, as well as for his indocile attitude that instead of resulting in an immediate death, he saw him catapulted into an improvised ring where he was forced to fight dozens of times against other deportees.
At stake was his life and of course also the possibility of having a slightly better treatment than those who were almost always condemned to death by starvation, hardship and of course the infamous gas chambers. For no less than 76 times Harry was forced to defeat men who, like him, had ended up shredded by the Nazi death machine, inflicted on them KO which was always followed by a pistol or rifle shot with which the loser was finished off. Having survived by escaping one of the many death marches that followed the dissolution of the system of concentration camps due to the advancing Red Army, Harry would eventually end up as a professional boxer in the United States. The pinnacle of his career came in July of 1949, when he was called to contend for the ring none other than the legendaryRocky Marciano .
From his story in 2011 the cartoonist Reinhard Kleist had drawn a beautiful graphic novel, awarded by critics. And it is also by linking to the latter that Barry levinson, using a screenplay by Justine Juel Gillmer that manages to be almost entirely faithful to Haft’s life, has created this The Survivor . Reviewing this film means looking with objective disbelief at the low visibility that has been given to a work of great coherence, impact, humble but incredibly powerful in telling us about a survivor, a man who throughout his life has to deal with violence, pain and above all terrifying feelings of guilt.
Yet another great performance of a sensational actor
Ben Foster , born in 1980, is probably the most underrated actor of his generation. The Survivor is yet another proof of this. We have seen him with a dazzling quick-change talent in films such as Lone Survivor, 3 to Yuma, Hell or High Water, Pandorum or The Messenger .
Here he confirms himself as an exceptional performer to say the least, he often winks and recovers what Robert De Niro did for Scorsese’s Raging Bull , losing and gaining weight, muscles, moving entangled in anger and despair in a unique, sensational way in a film that he always moves along a tragic line, far from epic or heroic. Which perhaps explains why it hasn’t been praised as much as it deserved by the critics, perhaps also due to having ended up on HBO rather than Netflix or Apple TV+. Foster has played Haft since the late 1930s, when his then girlfriend Lea was taken by the Nazis in the early 1960s. In the middle is hell, an extraordinary portrait of a boxer suffering from PTSD, traumatized by a horror he had to embrace in order to survive, and which has in particular a face, biographically fictitious but historically true, that of SS Captain Dietrich Schneider (Billy Magnussen). Schneider discovers him, saves him, trains him, but only to make him his personal slave, with whom to earn money and prestige in repulsive fights between desperate men and nearly exhausted by hunger and the horror that surrounds them. Colors alternate with black and white, in a story characterized by continuous flashbacks and flash-forwards, which give us back the image of a man so powerful, simply incapable of giving up, an absolutely elementary boxer as often happened in those years, but at the same time fragile, pursued by a terror that Levinson manages to make us reach in a unique, almost hypnotic way. Very few films in recent years have been able to bring us something new, different about what it meant to end up in the Final Solution and live with the sense of guilt of having made it, perhaps snatching a piece of bread or the life of another who had been branded by the Nazis.The Survivor is consequently almost more an emotional and existential vivisection than a true biopic, at least not in the degrading and sugary sense that cinema has given us of this genre lately.
The concept of guilt and memory
Boxing as a condemnation and as salvation, the Ring as a temple where you can humiliate yourself and redeem yourself at the same time? Another of the merits of The Survivor , which has a top-level supporting cast with Vicky Krieps, Billy Magnussen, Peter Sarsgaard, John Leguizamo and Danny DeVito , is also that of deconstructing the myth of the noble art as a means of social redemption. It certainly was, it already was at the time when Rocky Marciano, that little Italian tank, became the hero of an entire nation, it was even before the Second World War, with the exploits of Joe Louis and the his rivalry with Max Schmelling.
But for every Jake LaMotta (whose Scorsesian soul clearly relives here), for every Rocky Balboa that cinema has given us, then there is the other face, the real one, that of men like Harry Haft, who were mere cannon fodder for the organizers and managers, forced rather than chasing a dream, to do the only thing they thought they knew how to do: fight to survive.
The Survivor is a film far from being sentimental, but it contains so many feelings, it may seem like a paradox but we experience them all thanks to Ben Foster , this man who clings to life out of obstinacy rather than out of love. Hope doesn’t exist, there is only blind fury, the struggle, the sense of guilt for never having found a girlfriend, for the silence and loneliness that surround him.
The Survivor has had several nominations, yet it seems surprising that a film of this caliber and caliber, classic in form but incredibly innovative in substance, has gone so far on the sly. Because very few have managed to make the importance of memory truly tangible, as well as the oblivion that immediately made its way into the world, almost as if to refuse that something like Auschwitz or Dachau had really happened, as if to cast a pariah mark on survivors such as Harry Haft . Because as long as they lived and remembered everyone what had happened, for many it seemed as if the war had never ended. This is why on this Remembrance Day, you should recover it: it’s not just a beautiful movie it’s an incredibly important movie.
Harry Haft: A Survivor’s Story is available on Sky and streaming on NOW.