HBO's 'The Survivor' Shields Viewers From Harry Haft's Whole Truth

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A boxer with slicked back hair, poses with gloves up as if ready to fight.
Ben Foster as Harry Haft, an Auschwitz prisoner who survived by taking part in bare-knuckle boxing matches for the amusement of SS officers. (HBO)

There is a plethora of books and films available that portray the unfathomably cruel acts rendered commonplace during World War II. The most effective ones tend to tighten focus on individual accounts, with all of their small and devastating details. These stories do the work of making the atrocities more tangible to those of us several generations removed.

Hertzko "Harry" Haft's life story is one such tale, but it raises more moral quandaries than most.

Haft was a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz by bare-knuckle boxing with other prisoners at the behest—and for the entertainment—of SS guards. Haft was protected and provided with food by an officer named Schneider as long as the prisoner continued to fight. Schneider saved Haft time and time again, not just because Haft provided the guard with entertainment. Schneider was also motivated by a promise that Haft made to relay the officer's good deeds to the allies if the German was ever captured.

In Haft's time at Auschwitz, he won all of his boxing matches, declared winner only after he had knocked out his rival. To lose the match would be to lose his life: all 76 of his opponents were immediately killed by either a bullet or the gas chamber upon defeat.

At the end of the war, aged 21 and having been imprisoned in seven concentration camps in five years, Haft made a dramatic escape from a Nazi death march, and began a new life in Brooklyn. He continued boxing for years after the war, his most famous fight against Rocky Marciano, one of the all-time greats. "After all I've been through," Haft famously said in 1948, "what harm can a man with gloves on his hands do me?"

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You can read the details of Haft's fascinating life in Reinhard Kleist's excellent 2012 graphic novel The Boxer, and in Harry Haft, the 2006 biography by Haft's son Alan Scott Haft, on which the graphic novel was based. Now comes HBO's The Survivor, a biopic directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Wag the Dog), and consulted on by the USC Shoah Foundation—an organization that collects Holocaust survivor stories.

The Survivor benefits, first and foremost, from beautiful direction and an excellent cast. Ben Foster is unrecognizable as Haft, and entirely convincing at every gut-wrenching step of his performance. During scenes at Auschwitz, Foster embodies the expressions of a desperate human living perpetually in survival mode. For Haft's early days in Brooklyn, Foster effectively captures the torment of a person attempting to live a normal life after surviving a living hell. And for Haft's later years, Foster allows his performance to take on the gnarled and calloused edges of a man who never came to terms with what happened to him.

At Foster's side in Haft's post-war boxing world are scene-stealing performances by John Leguizamo (who plays Haft's trainer, Pepe) and Danny DeVito (as Rocky Marciano's trainer Charley Goldman, who secretly gave Hast tips before the big fight). Both Leguizamo and DeVito imbue the film with much-needed moments of light and humor. Meanwhile, Vicky Krieps's portrayal of Haft's wife, Miriam Wofsoniker, includes just the right combination of sympathy, sensitivity and frustration.

The Survivor is a stunning and heart-wrenching portrayal of one man's literal fight to survive, and the deep emotional scars it left behind. The film quietly asks thought-provoking questions about morality, spirituality, trauma and the meaning of true strength. And the broad arc of Haft's story, as presented here, is accurate. Where The Survivor falters is in its compulsion to insert Hollywood versions of events in place of real-life details that would have more than sufficed. And it goes far beyond small instances of artistic license.

For one, the biopic glosses over the abuse to which Haft subjected his son Alan later in life. “You’re talking about a Holocaust survivor who’s got PTSD," Alan once said of writing his father's biography, "talking to a second-generation Holocaust survivor who’s got PTSD from having survived growing up with him.”

In addition, The Survivor creates a fictional backstory for the relationship Haft had with his wife, lest the true story be deemed unromantic. In reality, Haft and Wofsoniker were neighbors who married just a week after meeting, in part because the elderly woman Haft was boarding with had died, rendering him homeless.

Yes, The Survivor grittily recreates Haft's fights at Auschwitz as he later relayed them to his son—often, fights with men far too depleted to defend themselves. There's a harrowing depiction of the fight Haft had to win against a champion French heavyweight brought to Auschwitz by Berlin generals. But the filmmakers, apparently unsure whether the truth would suitably move the audience, also concoct a fictional scenario in which Haft is forced to fight a dear friend. This scene is taken to such an overwrought conclusion that one can only hope viewers recognize it as a fabrication. (I was compelled to fact-check it the moment it was over.)

An emaciated shirtless man with a shaved head stands with a look of steely determination. Opposite a nazi SS officer gives him instructions. Behind them, fences and other soldiers are visible.
Ben Foster as Harry Haft and Billy Magnussen as Dietrich Schneider, the SS officer who saved Haft's life repeatedly, as long as the young man agreed to box. (HBO)

The Survivor consistently rewrites Haft's story to raise the emotional stakes. The conclusion presented for the relationship between Haft and SS officer Schneider is entirely (and depressingly) fabricated. Worse, tying the two men's story up in a neat little bow impacts how The Survivor presents Haft's real-life escape—a story absolutely worth telling. Is the movie version more satisfying than what really happened? Of course. But at this stage in history, surely telling the truth about every detail of the Holocaust is more important.

The truth is that Haft's daring escape also involved killing three civilians. While on the run, Haft killed an SS officer, stole his uniform and, shortly after, took shelter in the home of an elderly German couple. After they had welcomed him in, given him food and the chance to bathe, Haft grew fearful of being discovered as an imposter and shot them both dead. Further down the road, when a woman recognized that he was neither German nor a soldier, Haft shot her dead and told her young son to hide.

Erasing the dark reality of what Haft did in pursuit of his own freedom might, on the surface, make sense: it renders Haft a more sympathetic protagonist. But this is a two-hour biopic that repeatedly asks the viewer to think about the lengths to which we might go to survive an abhorrent situation. Denying us a full picture of what Haft did to make it out alive seems in direct opposition to the movie's primary goals.

In the end, The Survivor—while compelling and impactful—squanders the opportunity to tell Harry Haft's story as he himself was willing to do. This truth is especially important at a time when few Holocaust survivors are around to tell us exactly what happened to them. (Haft died in 2007.)

Changing these details wasn't just unnecessary, it also implies Haft's life wasn't quite good enough, or sad enough, to tell honestly. In so doing, the project arguably passes judgment on a man who was, in impossible circumstances, simply trying to stay alive.

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'The Survivor' premieres on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Wednesday April 27, on HBO.