In the late 1940s, when Barry Levinson was a young boy, his family hosted a guest — his grandmother’s brother. The man’s name was Simka, and he shared a room with Levinson for a two-week period before moving away. Levinson remembers the man thrashing in his sleep and mumbling in a foreign language for some reason, but, as a young boy, he couldn’t understand why.
It wasn’t until years later that he learned that Simka was a survivor of the Holocaust, and his fits were a symptom of what is now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. Those memories came flooding back to Levinson when he first read Justine Juell Gillmer’s screenplay of “The Survivor.”
Levinson’s latest film, premiering April 27 on HBO, stars Ben Foster as Harry Haft, a real man who survived Auschwitz by boxing other prisoners at the behest of the Nazis. After making it out alive, Haft made headlines in 1953 when he boxed Rocky Marciano in an attempt to get the attention of his lost love, Leah (Dar Zuzovsky).
The biographical film follows Haft in two timelines: his time in the camp, depicted in black and white, and his present life, growing older and searching for Leah while his traumas follow — and plague — him. Levinson also included a scene that depicts Haft having similar fits to those he remembers Simka having. Except in this story, it’s Haft’s son who bears witness.
Foster subjected himself to massive weight changes to perform the role, in addition to performing all the fight sequences with full-impact punches. Levinson, for his part, interpreted the true story through his own lens, with the goal of exploring the true meaning of survival beyond simply staying alive.
Speaking with Variety, Foster and Levinson discussed reuniting for the first time in 23 years, the story’s resonance, what it took for Foster to play the role and what makes “The Survivor” different from other Holocaust films.
To start off, Barry, what drew you to this story in the first place?
BARRY LEVINSON: In reading “The Survivor,” once you were out of that camp, you have survived, but you haven’t totally survived. Now we call it post-traumatic stress disorder. Now we understand that events that were traumatic, that happened in the past, once the door is open and you leave, that doesn’t mean the past is gone. In some people it remains. This one specifically is about this man that Ben Foster plays, Harry Haft, who was in the camps as a very young man. But he doesn’t just survive because he got out. He has to find himself at some point and come to terms so that he can live the rest of his life, in terms of being married, in terms of having kids and trying to have healthy relationships, all of those elements, but done in a way that we can engage an audience in this kind of journey. He fought in the camps to survive. If you win, you’ll live another day. If you don’t, you’re gone. And how does he get on with all of these issues and at some point fight Rocky Marciano on his way up? It’s a fascinating journey and Ben really delivered on that complicated character.
Ben, what drew you to the character specifically, and to the challenge of playing someone like this?
BEN FOSTER: Well, what drew me initially is when Barry calls you and says, “I got something,” you read it right then. He gave me my first film, “Liberty Heights.” We tried to work together on another project that didn’t ultimately go. When I read the script, it had such scope and moral ambiguity. It’s a terribly moving piece. Then you start getting down to the engine room. How are we going to do this? And it was suggested that we could use digital effects to make Harry bigger and smaller for the weight loss and the weight gain. The one thing I knew was that I needed to lose the weight for myself, and fortunately, Barry and production were able to support that and we were able to shoot in order. So I was able to drop 62 pounds for the camp, and we took five weeks off, and I put on 50 for the ring. And then the last section of the film was the last decade with Harry and his story and I was able to indulge a lot more. Following a man’s journey, it’s rare for an actor to read something so complex. There’s so much to be drawn to in this material.
That transformation that you mentioned, was that a draw for you, or was that something that came after you already felt attached to the character?
FOSTER: I mean, reading the script, that’s the first impression when you read it, and you know who you’re going to be working with, and it’s Barry. So then, finding a character, each one’s different and they tell you what they need from you. I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I was in the camp scenes and didn’t reflect some version of loss that felt credible. We see the documentaries, you see the photos, and you can’t forget that. So that was an opportunity to explore. I wanted to just see how far I could go and still be able to fight.
What would you say you took away from that experience of going through such a physical transformation? What were the steps that you had to take to get yourself through the entire filming process?
FOSTER: Each person is different, and I wouldn’t recommend anybody do that. It’s not something I would encourage anyone to do. But it was a luxury to me. Because I got to choose. It wasn’t that I couldn’t eat because I was in the camp, I’m an actor. I recognize that, so for lack of a better word, there’s a sensual element to the work that always draws me into a character. It’s got to be in the body. We live here. So getting the opportunity to test myself, it’s kind of a selfish act, but for me, when you’re at such a deficit it makes my job easier. It’s easier to be hungry than to act hungry, right? And having that hunger inform the rest of Harry’s experience, I don’t think it’s something that you shake. The comedown of a role like this was much harder than getting into him. It’s a very strange job that we have and it can be preposterous at times. It’s strange having dreams of a concentration camp I was never in. I was having Harry’s nightmares, I don’t know how else to say it.
There have been many films that have documented the Holocaust. How did you approach that, and what did you want to bring to it to give your own perspective on that time in history?
LEVINSON: Just to try to give it as much authenticity as you can to make that environment feel very, very credible. Where we shot, it didn’t exist. We had to build it. This particular place wasn’t Auschwitz. So you want to find a way to be as credible as you can, as much as is humanly possible, to support the story, but also to support the actors and for everything to feel real, otherwise it starts to undermine the film. So you’re trying to do the best you can to create a vision to engage an audience. And this is the world that he was in. It’s not in the movie a lot, but it affects the whole movie because that’s what it’s about. You cannot necessarily let the past go.
And for both of you, were those scenes harder than the present day scenes that you were shooting with Harry, or would you say there was no real difference between the two?
FOSTER: Our set designer spared no detail when we walked out onto that set. It was 360 degrees, they built that camp up. Physically, each section of Harry’s life presented their own challenges and richness of experience. When I was in fighting shape when we’re in the New York era it was probably more comfortable because I was fed. The most volatile part of his life was in the last decade of Harry’s story. That’s when all the traumas start unraveling. I don’t think one section was harder than the other. I haven’t had so much fun doing something difficult, and that’s because of Barry. Although the subject matter is so challenging and heartbreaking at times, there’s a lot of laughter. He’s constantly sharing stories and telling jokes. A joke he told a couple of times on set — this speaks to Barry’s direction without giving a spoiler — but we were telling Jewish jokes on set and in the last scene on the beach in the film, Harry’s going to go join Miriam and smiles at his kid and they’re going to watch the ocean and they hold hands. Barry’s always hunting for something more in a scene, he’s constantly looking for potential. He leaned into me and said, “Remember that hat joke? Maybe you told Miriam the hat joke.” It was a beautiful instinct of Barry who had shared this joke a couple of times on set and he was refining the joke. The scene is so beautiful and touches on so many things that the story is. And that’s Barry, and coming to set in that kind of environment. So we’re dealing with very dark and challenging material that was always fun, alive and creatively dangerous, which is the best way to work for me.
Approaching a story like this, from the perspective of being a Jewish person who’s alive today, was that in any way cathartic? What was that experience like of inhabiting this story as a modern person living through something that has trickled down through generations?
FOSTER: The holidays have a deeper resonance since completing the film for myself. Each job is an opportunity to dig into something with blinders on. You’re just enveloping yourself in this subject, and because it’s touched our families, there is a deeper connection without question. But further than that, it’s made me so much more alert to what’s going on today. It’s not just the news cycle, is it? I just feel much more alert to the very dangerous times that we live in right now, and leading with compassion.
LEVINSON: To add to that, when you read something like 30-or-40% of high school students have never heard of the Holocaust, it’s frightening because if we don’t understand that, it’s not just simply Jewish people, it’s all types of people. If we don’t pay attention to our past, then we are basically lost and we repeat ourselves over and over again. Now you’re looking at three million refugees [from Ukraine], and what’s going to happen to them? Three million people are going to have to start a life over in some way as best they can and the place that they’ve known and grown up in and have been there for X number of centuries of family involvement. So what’s the post-traumatic stress to that? The human toll is not just simply in those who have died, it’s those who have survived and have a difficult time to have a full life. This was an individual whose life was upended as a young man. And this is a journey he follows to find some kind of peace within himself.
I was curious about the decision to end on the bride’s wedding performance of “God Bless America” in Yiddish. Could you talk about how that decision came up and what you were hoping to leave viewers with as they walk away from the film?
LEVINSON: On the bus ride coming from Auschwitz, I was sitting on the bus, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if somebody sings, I don’t know where or what, but somebody is singing ‘God Bless America’ in Yiddish?” I believe that’s how it turned into the wedding. She sings the song in Yiddish to that group of refugees. And the fact that they ultimately survived, etc. So it made sense to me because of the nature of the lines that are in the piece, in the song and what she said in the introduction [of the song]. In a sense of feeling safe et cetera and all of those things, after all the trauma that has taken place.
This interview has been edited and condensed.