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Barry Levinson on the set of the film, The Survivor, which makes its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Jessica Kourkounis/Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Compared with The Survivor, which makes its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam and The Natural were lighthearted romps. The moody, punishing biographical drama stars Ben Foster as Harry Haft, a Polish Jew who fought life-or-death matches for the amusement of Nazi officers in the Auschwitz concentration camp before immigrating to the United States to become a prizefighter who fought Rocky Marciano.

Director Levinson spoke to The Globe and Mail about The Survivor, his leading man and why he makes the films that he does.

TIFF 2021: Read our latest reviews of films playing at the festival

The flashback concentration camp scenes in The Survivor are quite raw and brutal. What was it like on set?

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It was quiet and respectful. We moved quickly. It’s like, this is the work we have to do. These are the images we need to capture. The flashback scenes are a very small part of the film – maybe 20 minutes in a two-hour movie. But you want to deal with it with the care and respect of what it represents.

In the film, after the war, Harry Haft’s brother tells Harry that no one wants to hear his story. And yet here you are telling Harry Haft’s story. Is there an audience for it?

If you were to make that judgment you probably wouldn’t make three quarters of the movies that are considered difficult. Let’s go back to The Best Years of Our Lives, from 1946. It’s about three GIs. Is it uplifting? No, it’s about the readjustment to a small town in changing times. One man lost his hands. Another man was a pilot reduced to working in a pharmacy. But the movie not only became the top-grossing film in 1946, but of the whole decade, beating out The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Barry Levinson’s biographical drama The Survivor stars Ben Foster as boxer Harry Haft, who looks to carry on after fighting to survive in WWII concentration camps.

Leo Pinter/Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

How do you account for that?

Because I believe, and I may be wrong, that there is a place for a human drama of life. Sometimes it strikes a chord and it clicks and it goes. To ignore it because somebody doesn’t want to see it, then we will only make one kind of film. Somewhere in us we want to see something that sticks with us – something more than to be kept busy for 90 minutes.

Do we like Ben Foster’s character, Harry Haft? He did some things that aren’t in the film that were unpleasant.

That’s war.

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But what’s our take on him?

I think by the end of the film we come to understand him. Early in the film, characters push back against him. His wife, Miriam, pushes back against him a number of times. I think its important the audience sees that. If they don’t, he’s just a nice guy.

And the film is exploring why he’s not always a nice guy?

He’s dealing with all this drama. He explodes at times. But why? Because he can’t put it to rest. It’s turning to anger and it expresses itself in ways that aren’t becoming. In the end, he’s able to turn the corner and finally achieve some kind of peace. But you need to see the man struggling to understand his transition.

Ben Foster portrays that struggle well. I don’t imagine that surprised you at all.

Ben is great. I put him in Liberty Heights when he was 17 years old. It was his first feature. He’s turned into one of the great character actors. He literally disappears into the roles that he does. It’s few and far between that you come upon that type of actor. If you ask me who else could play Harry Haft to that degree, I would say I wouldn’t know.

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Where does The Survivor fit in relationship with your other films?

I seldom compare movies I’ve done to the next one coming out. I’m generally looking for the human aspects of us that we can see and identify and relate to, and to be troubled by and perhaps come to understand. These kinds of films need to have enough emotional credibility. If they don’t, it just becomes a mechanical piece of work.

The Survivor screens Sept. 18 at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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