Barry Levinson’s “The Survivor” tells story of man who boxed to survive Auschwitz

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Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

More than 80 years after the end of the Holocaust we are once again living in a time of rising antisemitism, and watching genocide happen, this time in Ukraine. These facts make it even more crucial that we continue to remember and pass down the stories of the past, like that of Harry Haft’s, to new generations. Haft’s story is retold in the new film, “The Survivor,” directed by Barry Levinson and will premiere on HBO on April 27th, Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“The Survivor”: Harry Haft

Based on Haft’s incredible true story, the film reunites Levinson with award-winning actor Ben Foster. Foster stars in the lead role as Haft who, after being sent to Auschwitz, survives not only the unspeakable horrors of the camp but the gladiatorial boxing spectacle he is forced to perform with his fellow prisoners for the amusement of his captors. Unbeknownst to those who try to destroy him, Haft’s will to survive is driven by his quest to reunite with the woman he loves.

“The Survivor”: Matti Leshem

“Survivor” is produced by Matti Leshem, founder of New Mandate Films, a film and television production company created to mine the rich depth of Jewish history, literature, and stories from the Bible to the present day.

“Survivor” is his company’s first feature film. Leshem and New Mandate Films are also producing Keeper of the Diary for Fox Searchlight, which tells the story of Otto Frank’s discovery and publication of his daughter Anne’s diary.

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Lesham agreed to talk to the St. Louis Jewish Light ahead of Wednesday’s release.

When did you first hear the story of Harry Haft and how did it affect you?

I first read Justine Juel Gillmer’s splendid script about five years ago. Realizing it was based on Alan Haft’s searing biography of his father, Harry, I dove in. It was one of the most compelling Holocaust narratives I had ever read, and I knew I had to make the film. I had coffee with Justine and tried to convince her that I could get it made. Remarkably, she said yes. Justine’s grandmother was a Dane who had participated in smuggling Jews across the Öresund to safety in Sweden, and as the son of a Holocaust survivor we bonded quickly over our shared family histories.

Why did you decide this story needed to be told on film?

While there have been lots of films about the Holocaust, Harry’s story is of a man who not only fought back but put his life on the line in the most brutal way, fighting in death matches over seventy times in the camps – and winning. This story is about the moral cost of his survival, his PTSD, and the thing that drove him to survive, which was love. We’ve never seen anything like that.

Describe, how an idea like this moves to become a major motion picture? 

I wish I had a clear answer. This project was so personal for everyone involved because of the subject matter. It seemed to have a power of its own. A lot of people had to believe that it could become a reality. I think a turning point was when I shared the project with Aaron Gilbert of Bron Studios. Bron is known for backing important and difficult projects, and Aaron recognized the value of Harry’s story. Without him and Bron, this never would have gotten made.

How did you get Barry Levinson interested?  

One day I got a call that Barry Levinson had read the script and wanted to have lunch with me. I couldn’t believe it. I have seen every Barry Levinson film ever made and some more than twice. I had been trying to get a director and had met with a few, but no one had really gotten my attention. At lunch, Barry told me a story about his Uncle Simkha who had come to stay with him in Baltimore when he was a kid. At night he would hear Uncle Simkha cry in a language that was unfamiliar to him – it turned out Uncle Simkha was a survivor, but Barry knew very little about him. When I heard that story I knew we were destined to make the film together. I think The Survivor was Barry’s way of answering the question about who his uncle was and understanding how he lived the rest of his life having survived three concentration camps.

What is the most compelling part of the Haft story to you? 

In working with the USC Shoah Foundation on the film we were privy to hours of Harry’s testimony. Seeing Harry tell his story underscored how singularly harrowing his experience had been. I think Harry’s relentless drive to survive against all odds, inspired by love, cannot be underestimated.

What did you learn at the end of the storytelling process that you didnt know when you started?

To have the Holocaust as a subject to think about it in the most profound way; to have the obligation of trying to get this story right and to see it come to light has been an incredible privilege. I had no idea I would feel this way when I started almost five years ago.

What do you want the audience to leave with?

Unfortunately, we live in difficult times.  If we don’t remember the Holocaust, we are vulnerable to the idea that it never happened.  I want the audience to think deeply about what Harry had to do to survive.  Men and women like Harry are still alive today and are amongst us, but unfortunately not for long.

The Survivor: Official Trailer