Barry Levinson is a director who has dominated audiences’ tastes since the 1980s. Who doesn’t remember “Rain Man,” which won four Oscars in 1988. Or “Sleepers,” “Smokescreen,” and “Man of the Year.” It also has its journey into the world of television series. Now, at over 80 and after a few not very relevant television films, he returns to the screen with an important film, “The Survivor of Auschwitz”, which, by the way, comes to us two inexplicably years too late.
The screenplay by Justine Juel Gillmer is based on the biography of Herzko Half – known in the US as Harry Half – written by his son Alan Scott Half. Herzko (played by Ben Foster) was a Polish Jew enjoying his happy courtship when World War II and genocide caught them by surprise. His girlfriend Leah is arrested by the Nazis and Herzko is deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
He knows nothing more about Leah, but is convinced that she is still alive, and so decides to do everything in his power to survive the war. And the chance of survival comes from a Nazi officer from Auschwitz, Schneider (Billy Magnussen), who offers him a deal. Herzko has to box against other Jews in the camp to entertain the German officers. And he has to win in every fight. This way, Schneider will make money and Herzko will avoid the gas chamber. It wouldn’t be a bad deal if Schneider didn’t personally execute the Jews defeated by Herzko at the end of each battle. This begins the protagonist’s terrible moral conflict.
This plot is told through black and white flashbacks, in the form of the memories that haunt Herzko, now Harry, trying to make it as a boxer in the United States in 1949. Now his problem is finding Leah as he remains convinced she is alive. He thinks it’s best to be successful in boxing so he can get in the papers so Leah finds out about him. Assuming she lives in the United States.
Beyond Herzko’s overwhelming adventures, the film is above all a constant moral drama. Our protagonist is constantly faced with far-flung ethical dilemmas. In addition, the past haunts and torments him, filling him with anger and aggression, fuel for his boxing matches.
This psychological and moral devastation will have a first consequence for the Jewish half: all the horror experienced prevents him from understanding and maintaining his parents’ faith. For him, the unjustified suffering of the innocent becomes an objection to belief in God. A classic topic, however, in religious philosophy and theodicy. But the film also has its positive sides. Especially in relation to family relationships, marital love and parent-child bonds. Although these themes are also addressed in their dramatic form, the outcome is positive and hopeful. A solid film, just as solid is the first-class supporting cast: Danny DeVito, Vicky Krieps, Peter Sarsgaard and John Leguizamo.