Behind boxing film ‘The Survivor,’ a personal history of post-Holocaust trauma

Director Barry Levinson agreed to make the movie to help understand his own family’s experiences, recounts producer ahead of US premiere Wednesday night

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Ben Foster as Harry Haft, a Holocaust survivor who becomes a professional boxer, in HBO's 'The Survivor.' (Jessica Kourkounis/HBO)
Ben Foster as Harry Haft, a Holocaust survivor who becomes a professional boxer, in HBO's 'The Survivor.' (Jessica Kourkounis/HBO)

When Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson agreed to make “The Survivor,” he recounted a story about his Holocaust survivor great uncle to show his interest in directing the HBO film about Auschwitz-survivor-turned-professional-boxer Harry Haft that premiered in Israel Tuesday night.

The film, which will air in the US on HBO on Wednesday as Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, tells the story of Haft’s survival as a boxer in Auschwitz, and focuses heavily on his survival after the war, as a traumatized man living with his family in Brooklyn, New York.

The film features Ben Foster as Harry Haft, along with Vicky Krieps, Billy Magnussen, Peter Sarsgaard, Saro Emirze, Dar Zuzovsky, Danny DeVito and John Leguizamo.

The film producers met Levinson over lunch in Hollywood when Levinson “didn’t say a word” about the proposed script, said producer Matti Leshem, but instead told a story about his uncle Simka, who came to stay in Levinson’s home when he was still a boy, sleeping in Levinson’s room and screaming at night in a language that the young Levinson didn’t understand.

“Barry Levinson obviously brought his storytelling style,” said Leshem, who is one-half of New Mandate Films, his production company with Joel Greenberg. The two developed the movie from a script based on the biography, “Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano,” by Haft’s son, Alan Scott Haft.

Levinson ultimately agreed to direct “The Survivor,” as part of his own efforts to learn more about his uncle and explore his uncle’s life, particularly after the Holocaust.

“There’s a great responsibility when you do these kinds of scenes to do them accurately,” said Leshem. ” We spent a tremendous amount of time to get it as correct as we could and to reflect Harry’s story, and tell his entire life in two hours.”

Before they began shooting the film, the producers dug and found more information about Levinson’s uncle, “a dossier of 40 pages,” said Greenberg, which they gave the director before he started shooting the film.

Haft’s boxing story is unique, said Greenberg, but he and Leshem were ultimately interested in how survivors dealt with their post-traumatic stress disorder as they tried to forge new lives after the Holocaust, attempting to build and support their new families.

“It’s to move forward, not really to move on,” said Greenberg, a third-generation American Jew whose wife is the child of survivors. Greenberg began his career working as a lawyer at the US Justice Department, hunting Nazis in the US as part of the Office of Special Investigations.

Greenberg’s mother-in-law was hidden as a child in Slovakia during the Holocaust and Leshem’s father spent the war in the Czech resistance before making his way to Israel as a war correspondent and then from there to the US.

“When you think about the Holocaust academically, you think about the victims of the Holocaust, but the legacy of the Holocaust is really about those that lived their lives after the Holocaust,” said Leshem. “It’s the trauma of the second and third and fourth generations.”

Joel Greenberg, left, and Matti Leshem of New Mandate Films, the producers of Holocaust film ‘The Survivor,’ which premiered in Israel on April 26 and will air on HBO on April 27, 2022 (Courtesy Rafi Delouya)

By chance, the scriptwriter for “The Survivor,” Justine Juel Gillmer, is an Australian whose Danish grandmother helped ferry Jews to safety and is an amateur boxer herself. The film’s story is based on the book by Haft’s son, along with Haft’s own testimony, supplied by the USC Shoah Foundation, a co-producer of the film.

The film is Leshem and Greenberg’s first project, after partnering about five years ago.

“It’s not a simple topic and not particularly commercial but we have a significant commitment to this kind of material,” said Leshem.

They’re pleased that HBO bought the film after its Toronto Film Festival premiere last fall, and that the platform is airing the film on Wednesday, the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. “The Survivor” is being shown in movie theaters throughout Israel, as well, and in other territories.

Greenberg and Leshem hope the HBO placement in the US will draw boxing fans to watch the film, as well as younger American viewers who may have skimpy knowledge of the Holocaust, said Greenberg.

The producers are working on another film about Anne Frank’s father Otto Frank, and the story of how he published his daughter’s diary after the war.

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