Barry Levinson, Ben Foster, and Vicky Krieps spoke about their new Holocaust drama, The Survivor, premiering tonight in Toronto.
Levinson previously won an Oscar for Rain Man and the filmmaker could very well find himself in the race once again. Foster is Oscar-worthy in delivering a career-defining performance as Holocaust survivor and boxer Harry Haft. Krieps joins him in the cast as Haft’s wife, Miriam Wofsoniker, although she initially is the woman helping him search for his lost love, Leah, who was taken away by the Nazis.
Levinson directs from a script written by Justine Juel Gillmer and the film also stars Billy Magnussen, Peter Sarsgaard, John Leguizamo, and Danny DeVito. They are currently seeking acquisition in Toronto–whichever distributor acquires this film will have an Oscar contender on their hands. I’ll have a lot more to say about the film following the review embargo tonight.
Barry, what made you feel that you were the right filmmaker to tell Harry Haft’s story in The Survivor?
Barry Levinson: Besides the script being sent to me, I would say it was a kind of an interesting happenstance in that when I was very young, an incident happened in 1948, I believe, and I was a little kid and a man showed up at the door. It happened to be my grandmother’s brother, in which I never knew she had a brother—she never spoke about the brother. He stayed for two weeks and he was put in my room in a small house with grandparents and parents. During the night, I’d wake up as this little kid and there would be a man thrashing about in bed, and he’d be talking in a foreign language and he was all upset. These nightmares went on night after night after night. I couldn’t understand what was happening and then shortly thereafter, he had moved away. And years later—family never talked about it—years later, my mother, in talking about Simcha one day, mentioned he was in a concentration camp. I went Oh! All of a sudden, I flashbacked to the remembrances as a kid and I thought, well, that’s what was going on.
When this script was sent to me, it’s about the true story of Harry Haft, who was in a concentration camp and then struggled in the years after. Now we can call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I thought, well, that’s an interesting idea to explore and deal with in terms of those who have survived catastrophic events. So whether or not it was the concentration camp or whether or not it’s those who’ve dealt with 9/11 that they’ve been talking about recently, that dilemma, which is sort of like the invisible wounds of war, if you want to call it that—the psychological effects that it had—that makes it for an interesting premise to explore in terms of the story of Harry Haft.
Ben and Vicky, what was it about the script that drew you to the roles?
Vicky Krieps: To me, it was a very personal reason. I had two personal reasons. One is because I am very political. I like to believe so and ‘’m always very aware of what’s going on. Nowadays, it’s like a thing again—you have these Nazi demonstrations in Germany and an anti-Nazi demonstrations. And that day, I was in one of those demonstrations and I received the email. So right away, there was already a connection because I thought that it’s not a coincidence.
Then it being Barry, also, because I grew up with his movies being the movies I was looking up to. I think three of his movies were—I still remember that the biggest impact that had on me. Rain Man, in a sense of like, Oh, what a movie could be, what a journey—I hadn’t had this feeling for them. Good Morning, Vietnam because I was just at the age when it was the first time that I could go to cinemas. I don’t know why I remember—it gave me a strong feeling of like, What is life? And how can you be smiling and be happy when there’s happy and sad and what is war and life and still. And then Sleepers, which was the first time I really felt a sadness that I was almost sick. I remember, as a young girl, I didn’t know what to do with myself but I was also moved and happy I had seen the movie. Knowing that it was him also was, of course, something that drew me to script.
And then last, my personal story that my grandmother was also the wife of a survivor and I was a little child running between them and watching them and understanding that my grandmother had done so much for him and for everyone and no one ever appreciated her, actually. It was never talked about her. It was always about him and how he survived the camps and what a great man he became. But he was also a very difficult character. He was full of questions and violence. She would always sit at the window and be so many (inaudible) so I could feel something in her. But it was never about her all my life. She’s dead now, unfortunately. It was never about this woman although she cared so much. I think so many women did after the war, and to me, it was important to give one of these women, the right voice, to give her some sort of strength but subtle and multilayered like in real life. So many reasons for me.
Ben Foster: I was taken…beautiful work. Vicky. Honored. It’s Barry! Barry reached out and said I have something that I’d like you to take a look at. I read it immediately and got right back to him. And he said, Great. Barry gave me my first film role when I was a kid in Liberty Heights, part of the Baltimore series, and also being an enormous fan and that Diner was my parents’ favorite movie that we have on the shelf, a part of that series, which in many ways, this story, and only really realizing this later, is that this, in many ways, is an origin story of those who came to America. Getting a much closer view of the cost of war and the traumas that had to be hidden or repressed—being able to physically, because that’s what we do. We’re hunting human behavior. We’re after the inner life of humans as actors. The opportunity to push myself, mind and body, farther than I had been able to before, particularly with such, as Vicki was saying, current issues was—it’s just a gift to be able to ask these questions with your heart.
I felt that your performance is one of the best performances I’ve seen on screen not only this year but in the past several years. Can you talk about your process?
Ben Foster: Thank you for saying so. The process was a gift. Usually, we have a few weeks, six weeks. We generally, as an actor, get six weeks. I had the good fortune of having five months and then it just gets down to the logistics of how are we going to shoot three decades of a person’s life. And though it’s not viewed in a linear way—it’s fragmented, it’s memories—we shot it in a linear way so we could achieve that internal life could carry on linearly for us. We started in the camps. The backstory is we did a lot of research. I spent time with a Yiddish expert to make sure the dialect was particular to the shtetl he grew up in. We went to Auschwitz and we touched the rails in which the trains came. It’s very different when you read about it, then to be there. The weight loss, of course, was important to me to carry with me for the rest of the film and then be able to put it back on. We’re proud that we were being processed.
One of the things that caught my eye when I was watching the film was that all of the scenes from the camps were in black and white. Were there any films that inspired the look?
Barry Levinson: Not really. I was using the black and white of the camps because it’s his memory. It needs to be differentiated from the presence and the times that he’s in. We may flashback for X number of seconds wherever you go, okay. It is deep memory so you wanted to visually create a different look for it and the black and white seemed the most appropriate tool. Because otherwise you have to say, well, where am I as opposed to I got it. Those drops within the film are very specific so that we don’t have to try to remember where we are, we can just—this was the past, the deep past, we are three timeframes but that’s the deep past.
What was the most challenging aspect of the production?
Barry Levinson: I think there are a number of things. Look, on one hand, you always want to have the authenticity as much as possible—that you definitely want. But if I had to look at it, I’d have to say it’s about behavior is the key thing you have to watch. Because if you don’t believe it, if it doesn’t have the credibility of the moment than I think it undermines the whole piece, then it just becomes some kind of serviceable plot. I think we have to get underneath it. We have to understand what it is that is underneath this man that is so troubling to him that he can’t share those things. What is Miriam, as Vicki portrays, what type of woman that can deal with him that has this private kind of strength about her and understanding. It’s not always what they say but it’s sometimes what they don’t say and so that credibility is really important because those are the real building blocks. The other stuff is important but if we don’t follow the journey of these characters and how they interact with one another, then I think that we don’t succeed. That’s the big task and I think both of these actors just really delivered all those performances.
I know you were touching on it earlier but one of the things I appreciated about the film is how it approaches the nightmares and post-Holocaust trauma. For years, I used to wonder why so many survivors were silent about their experiences until Schindler’s List came around and then in seeing the nightmares in The Survivor, it made me realize why they were quiet for so long.
Barry Levinson: Well, it also plays—just the past few days because of 9/11, the 20th anniversary of that disaster. You’re seeing some of those people that, when they’re being interviewed 20 years after the fact, can sometimes not get through trying to tell what happened. It is so traumatic to them that they can’t get over it. Some of them talked about the fact that they turned to alcohol or other ways to try to settle themselves down because the trauma of that incident stays with them.
The post-traumatic stress disorder that we talk about—how it affects and scars people, which we can’t see—it’s an internal thing. Some people can move on and some people struggle with it throughout their lives. Harry Haft struggled with it. His wife, Miriam, in terms of having a family, had a struggle with his behavior and tried to be able to get him to be able to deal with where they are, the time they’re in, and be able to enjoy the life and not to forget the past but you do have to move on and live the life that you have.
Vicky Krieps: Something because my grandfather was, as I said, in the camps. Something I learned from this movie, and maybe it’s interesting for you to know, I always wondered why did he not talk about it, right? What you just said. One day, I read his diary. He wrote an account of it. I never understood it and after the movie, I understood something because, in this case, it’s more obvious what he does. He does these horrible things—he has to kill in order to survive. I suddenly understood, Oh, my grandfather, too, had a bad conscience because he was a survivor. He didn’t do what Harry Haft did but he knew he survived only because others didn’t. The horrible thing is if you survived, you knew I survived because I had a jumper because the other guy didn’t have a jumper. I think, I mean, I don’t know because I haven’t lived it, but I then thought to myself, Oh, probably, that’s why he never spoke about it because he felt so bad, also, to have survived. I think this is something, when you don’t talk about it, and after the war in the 50s, they didn’t have therapy—they had but they didn’t do it. My grandfather didn’t. I think not talking about it, it made it bigger and bigger. It was like this thing, which is so great in the movie that they do talk about.
What are you looking for in a distributor?
Barry Levinson: We’re looking for a distributor that understands the film and is enthusiastic about it, and wants to work to get it out there so that the public can see it. I think that’s all you can ask for is someone that has the motivation to say I want people to see this and I want to get it out for an audience so that they can appreciate the work.
This film feels so important especially during a time when there are an increasing number of hate crimes against Jews. What do you want audiences to take away from watching the film?
Barry Levinson: It’s always hard to say what do you want someone to take away in terms of—I think you want to show people—G-d knows we come from all different parts of the world and somehow, we all come together. For the most part, we’re able to deal with one another and there are those who basically can’t deal with people who are not exactly what they are. That’s a separate issue in a sense. There are some people who just don’t want to have anything to do with anyone except their own group and we can’t really address that.
I do think that we need to understand one another, that we are not the same, and we can celebrate our differences. As opposed to saying we all have to conform to, we can all be separate people with different ideas and still be able to get along and function without constantly being a battle. I can’t say that this movie is supposed to address that or a change will come from it. We’re talking about human behavior—how do we respond? How do we try to get through the day? How do we try to like live as best we can with friends and family and in some kind of comforting environment?