When producer Matti Leshem first brought me the script for The survivorI had a visceral reaction and knew I had to make the film. In part it was because I had known members of my own family who had survived the Holocaust, and I had seen the impact on their lives. But mostly because I’ve always been interested in telling the stories of the great immigrant experience that has made this country what it is: a real melting pot that benefited from real diversity, not just ethnicity but thought. The survivor is not so much a Holocaust film as it is a post-Holocaust film.
The true story of Harry Haft’s survival in the camps by repeatedly fighting gladiatorial combat is harrowing, but it’s the effects of that life as he emerges from the trauma the film focuses on. The basic history of the US is rooted in large waves of immigration; after World War II, only two countries opened their doors significantly to refugees, the US and the new state of Israel. Harry could have chosen either one, but he already had family in the US; because he was liberated by American soldiers, he also felt related to the country.
When I started the journey to make this film, it didn’t occur to me that I was telling a story other than Harry’s. In fact, the resonance of The survivor sounds too true today. While no moral equivalence can ever be made to the horrors of the Holocaust or any other genocide (I remember the word “genocide” was created to describe this event), as I look around the world today, I am struck by the growing apathy for the ongoing war in Ukraine. A war on the same European soil where today tens of thousands of civilians are being murdered by an autocratic dictator. Just as America was too late to enter World War II — it took President Franklin D. Roosevelt until 1942 to enter the war despite the government being aware of Nazi atrocities — in the same way a culture , we look away from the Russian invasion and acts of horror as we convince ourselves that sending money and weapons is enough. Furthermore, within our own borders, the rise of neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism is unprecedented. Of course neo-Nazis don’t just target Jews and they have a strong hatred of African Americans and all non-white minorities. It’s hard to imagine fascists gathering in our streets like they did in Nuremberg, but of course that’s exactly what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
We now live in a world of total mistrust. A world of villains. scapegoats. Conspiracy theories. Where is it all going? During pre-production, we decided that we had to visit Auschwitz before filming started. The systematic elimination of millions of people is harrowing to say the least. As we stood on top of one of the crematoria and listened to our guide take us back to the early 1930’s. The Rise of the Nazi Party. The hatred of Jews in their propaganda. A desire to return to a glorious past. And the beginning of Jews losing their rights. As we stood along the road leading to the crematorium, he continued: “This is the road built by hatred. Who knew it would lead here, and to such horror?’
The cry of “Never again” was specifically intended to unite us as a society around the common cause of not allowing genocide to return. When watching the film I made, I am often reminded of how we fail as a society. The effects of racism and fascism leading to war should always be unbearable for us.
This story first appeared in a standalone August issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.