Acting Up: Ben Foster
Ben Foster plays a Polish Jew who survives the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust by boxing fellow Jews for the amusement of his Nazi captors in The Survivor.
(The film premiered on HBO and HBO Max on April 27th.)
For all the atrocities the Jews endured at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, I thought I’d seen most of them – in history books, Holocaust museums and films like Schindler’s List.
That is, until The Survivor showed me yet another appalling story involving the Nazi’s deliberate murder of approximately six million Jews during WWII. From Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson, The Survivor tells the true-life story of Harry Haft (Ben Foster), who upon being kept in the concentration camp Auschwitz was trained like a pitbull to fight other Jewish prisoners in boxing matches to the death. Not that Haft would kill them, but the loser was often shot on the spot by Nazis, which left Haft little choice but to try and survive another day.
In heartbreaking fashion, fueled by the love of the woman he is separated from in the camps, Haft develops a twisted relationship with a Nazi SS officer (played diabolically by Billy Magnussen) who arranges and gambles on these gladiator-like matches that are gutwrenching to watch. The film is about how Haft deals with the memories of these traumatic events post-war and how it affects his life moving forward in America as he tries to find the woman he loves.
Foster’s performance as Haft is truly remarkable – from the Polish/Yiddish accent he perfects to the embodiment of the pain and guilt he carries once he sets up a new life in America in the late 40s. To play the role, Foster reportedly watched hundreds of hours of testimony from Holocaust survivors thanks to the Shoah Foundation – and the result is visceral portrayal that feels spot-on.
As with so many Holocaust survivors, the horrors experienced traumatize not only them but future generations for the people who live with those who experienced the trauma firsthand.
To portray these two separate worlds, Foster lost 62 lbs. over five months to play the scrappy and scrawny Haft during his character’s days in Auschwitz – before putting the weight back on to play Haft in post-war America. Foster pulled no punches, so to speak, in making this remarkable transformation a reality for his character. In no world was the talent-that-is-Foster going to accept “digital weight loss” to portray Haft. He felt losing the weight himself was the best way to honor those in the camps or else he wouldn’t have “been able to face himself in the morning.”
And then there was the boxing, which Foster portrays in more than convincing fashion thanks to his research – and the fact that his grandfather was a boxer while his father boxes to this day. In one of the more touching moments in the film, Haft decides he wants to pursue a fight with Rocky Marciano so that the woman he loves – but can’t find – will see him in the papers. To help his cause, Marciano’s trainer (Danny DeVito) changes teams for a couple of days to train Haft, so that he can survive the fight at the very least and maybe even retain his dignity at best.
In scene after scene, Foster gives a mind-blowing performance, fully embodying this tough yet tragically scarred human being. Beyond the physical sacrifices he endured to play Haft, Foster adeptly communicates the conflict of the challenging circumstances that kept Haft alive during his time at Auschwitz. From playing the shame of someone partly responsible for killing fellow Jews to the guilt associated with his impossible plight, the Jewish Foster gives himself to this role the way few great actors could. The result is one of the best performances of 2022.
The New-York based Foster has been doing stellar work in TV and film for three-plus decades.
As the story would have it, the 41-year-old wasn’t much of a student growing up in Boston and Iowa, so he made “a demo” at age 14 having been bitten by the acting bug. This after writing, directing and producing a play at age 12 that won second place in an international competition.
Soon after that, Foster dropped out of high school at age 16 and moved to Los Angeles where he was cast in the Disney Channel series Flash Forward (1995). His career was off-and-running.
Foster starred in many memorable roles soon after that – in films like Liberty Heights (1999) and Get Over It (2001). Flash forward to a couple of years later when Foster would land a recurring role in HBO’s Six Feet Under (2003) as Russel Corwin – before playing a role that would help catapult his career in Alpha Dog (2006), as a volatile gang banger who’s as dangerous as he is unpredictable. Higher profile projects would await in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and 3:10 to Yuma (2007), where he starred as Charlie Prince opposite Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. As the years ticked by, Foster locked down more notable roles, namely in films such as The Messenger (2009), Pandorum (2009) and The Mechanic (2011) amongst others.
With The Survivor taking Foster’s career to yet another level given his powerful portrayal of Harry Haft, one might expect some recognition when the Emmy awards season rolls around this fall. Especially when you consider this film could’ve easily enjoyed a theatrical run.
Until then, Foster has other top-shelf projects completed, namely the sports drama Hustle on Netflix co-starring Adam Sandler as well as Antoine Fuqua’s high-profile project, Emancipation, Apple TV+’s ambitious action-thriller about a runaway slave co-starring Will Smith. The film was recently pushed back to 2023 thanks to the slap heard ‘round the world – but regardless, there’s lots more of Foster to come in the next year or so. And for that, we can be grateful.
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Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.