Survivor, The: Barry Levinson on Directing Sports and Holocaust Story

The Oscar-winning director has turned the real-life story of a boxer haunted by guilt over fighting fellow Jews in Auschwitz into a movie about post-traumatic stress disorder.


Barry Levinson earned the best director Oscar for Rain Man in 1999 and helmed classics like Diner (1982), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Bugsy (1991) and Wag the Dog.

Now he’s back with the World War II-era biopic The Survivor, which tells the true story of Harry Haft, a boxer broken by being forced by an SS Nazi officer to fight fellow Jews in Auschwitz, only to narrowly escape to America and box Rocky Marciano as a pro to recapture lost love.

His  latest directing came after reading a scene in the original script that triggered a vivid childhood memory from his time growing up in Baltimore of Russian Jewish descent.

“I thought this film is actually about post-traumatic stress disorder as we would now call it,” Levinson says.

The film, starring Ben Foster, had a gala world premiere at the Toronto Film Fest.

Motivation to direct The Survivor?

When I was about 4 or 5 years old, in post World War II, I lived with my parents and grandparents. And one day this man showed up at the door and it turned out it was my grandmother’s brother. I never heard her mention him, and I never thought she had a brother. He stayed with us for two weeks. I had my own room, and it was cramped for space, but they put a cot in my bedroom and he slept in that room across from me. At night, I would wake up and hear him saying something in a foreign language, and he was upset and he was thrashing about and he would call out and then he would fall back asleep. That went on night after night for two weeks. And one day he left, and he moved on to New Jersey. I always remember that. When I got the original Harry Haft script, I thought of him. I thought, “This isn’t a film that takes place in the [death] camps. There’s flashbacks to the camps.” I thought, “This film is actually about post-traumatic stress disorder as we would now call it.” So it was the original script that caught my attention and the idea of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Life lesson of Harry Haft and the trauma endured 

The Survivor is certainly no sports movie. 

In a lot of people there’s the instinct to survive. But with normal boxing matches, you win and life goes on. This is different. You either survive or you die. You either go on to another fight, or you die. And that’s the struggle that you live with and are haunted by. If Haft wasn’t, it wouldn’t have been the same scenario.

Harry Haft surviving Auschwitz because of lost love

What pulled him through was this young woman, this romance that kept them going in the camps. Oddly enough, this summer romance kept them alive. Of course, that’s what happens when you’re there. But the point is how do you deal with it after you’re free of that? The mind doesn’t always let go of what happened, of the problem. And that’s the story.

war experience and its aftermath in America

three timelines. That’s because we’re not experiencing the camps, or recalling the camps. If you did the movie in chronological order, it wouldn’t tell the story as well that, in fact, what happened is what haunts him. That’s the difficulty, as opposed to, “Let’s just follow his journey through the camps and then afterwards.” It’s flashing back to what stands out for him, and that gets us to 1949. OK, he survives and he’s getting on with life. But he can’t quite get on with life. That sets the table of the overall drama.

Is this film of the moment 

If it came up earlier, would I have wanted to do it? I probably would. But it wouldn’t have been the same film. And it was a childhood remembrance that stayed in my head. When I read the script, I thought, “OK, this is interesting. This is about how do you basically survive after it happened, mentally, how do you deal with the haunting of it?”

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Shooting in Hungary

To be honest, the experience of shooting it there, in terms of the crew, was really exceptionally good. The whole crew was quite invested in the story. Obviously, most would not have experienced (the war), it was too long ago. They heard stories passed on to them. In terms of shooting, they were very respectful. We had to shoot rather quickly. It’s not that big a budget film. We had to shoot the movie in 34 days. We had to do a lot of trickery to give it the size and the credibility it needed.

Ben Foster immersed himself in the role

Ben lost 60 pounds for the camp sequences. It’s extraordinary how he was able to do that. You lose 60 pounds and then do boxing scenes. The stamina needed for all of that, he was just remarkable. He had to lose weight and then gain weight and then gain extra weight. It was a taxing experience, physically and mentally. But he was up for that, he’s a terrific actor and among only a handful of actors that can really play character roles and just literally disappear into them.

Next Project: The Winner, a movie about Trump

I’m very interested in it. But it’s a very unusual take on that. It’s quite inventive, and very different from anything I’ve ever seen or related to a biopic. The concept and design is quite fascinating.

Wag the Dog, about White House concocting war to distract

Sometimes you do work about what you think the state is and where things are going. I don’t think it’s a dark secret about the proliferation of TV culture. It was very much responsible for the election of John F. Kennedy. That was the beginning. And then comes Obama, as he’s charismatic on television. And along comes Trump, who is not charismatic in real positive way, but he captures the imagination and we’re talking about a guy who had a reality TV show for 10 years and he had people watching and some people thought, “He’s very successful, he runs his business, I see him every week on TV and he should be president.” And you ask, “What about credentials?” We don’t care anymore. He captures our imagination. That’s been on my mind for a long time, someone who basically captures our attention. That’s the nature of television. Inevitably there was going to be a president who was real TV personality. That’s not going away. I think down the road it’s going to get worse, not better.