‘The Survivor’: The long road to bring Harry Haft's story to the screen

In an interview, business partners and friends Matti Leshem and Joel Greenberg spoke about the long journey to get this story to the screen and why they persisted against heavy odds.

 A SCENE FROM ‘The Survivor,’ the true story of boxer Harry Haft. (photo credit: United King Films)
A SCENE FROM ‘The Survivor,’ the true story of boxer Harry Haft.
(photo credit: United King Films)

The Tel Aviv premiere of Barry Levinson’s new movie, The Survivor, the true story of Harry Haft, who survived Auschwitz by boxing, at Cinema City Glilot on Tuesday night was an emotional event. Two of its producers, Matti Leshem and Joel Greenberg, were in the audience and were especially excited about showing the film in Israel.

The movie, which opened in theaters all over the country on Thursday to mark Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day, and which was released in the United States on HBO on April 27, stars Ben Foster in the lead role and has a supporting cast that includes Peter Sarsgaard, Vicky Krieps and Danny DeVito.

But, the standout performance is unquestionably by Foster in the lead role. His performance is extraordinary both as a professional boxer trying to shake his wartime trauma in New York in the late 40s and as an emaciated death camp inmate a few years before that, who was forced to box by the Nazi guards. Foster lost 62 pounds to play Haft during the war and the effort paid off: He is completely convincing in the concentration-camp scenes and he will likely be nominated for an Oscar.

In an interview a few hours before the premiere, business partners and friends Leshem and Greenberg spoke about the long journey to get this story to the screen and why they persisted against heavy odds.

Leshem, who was a producer of the film, is the founder of New Mandate Films, a film and television production company created to mine the rich depth of Jewish history, literature, and stories from the Bible to the present day. He has also produced many commercial films, among them The Shallows.

 PRODUCERS OF ‘The Survivor’ Joel Greenberg (left) and Matti Leshem.  (credit: RAFI DELOUYA) PRODUCERS OF ‘The Survivor’ Joel Greenberg (left) and Matti Leshem. (credit: RAFI DELOUYA)

For Greenberg, who was an executive producer on the film, The Survivor is his first foray into movie producing. He is a lawyer whose first job out of law school was hunting Nazis who were in America illegally for the Office of Special Investigations (OSI). He is a founder of Susquehanna International Group, LLP (“SIG”), which is involved in trading and market making, institutional sales, research and venture capital around the world, and a co-founder of Seed The Dream Foundation (STDF), which works to empower people through education.

Said Leshem, “When we started our company New Mandate, we made a pledge to each other that we were going to tell these important Jewish stories and Israeli stories. We weren’t going to make propaganda, but we were going to cast these stories in a positive light, and to make people pay attention, but we were not going to do it in a parochial way, we wanted to do it in a big way, we wanted to make sure the world was going to see these things. I feel very grateful that we’ve had such a big success with our first film. It’s kind of incredible.”

The road to this success was a long one and many less tenacious producers would have given up. Leshem and Greenberg read the script and loved it, and then were contacted by director Barry Levinson, who had also read it and been impressed.

Levinson, who won an Oscar for directing Rain Man (which also won Best Picture) and who has directed a number of movies about American Jewish life, among them Avalon, Liberty Heights and Diner, is a force to be reckoned with in the film industry.

They knew him only by reputation, but when they met, Levinson regaled them with Hollywood stories, and then, Leshem recalled, “Barry told us this story about how he was a kid, and his mother’s uncle came to see them and he would wake up at night, screaming in a language he didn’t understand. And when he was 14, his mother told him, your uncle – my uncle – was in the Shoah... Barry comes from a generation of assimilated American Jews that never wanted to talk about that past. He has made a lot of films about American Jews but had never dealt with the issue of the Holocaust before.”

Eventually, they were able to track down the full story of Levinson’s uncle’s time in the camps and the director was grateful to learn it.

Leshem is the son of Moshe Leshem, who was Israel’s ambassador to a number of countries, among them Denmark, as well as to the UN, and who survived the Holocaust as a member of a resistance cell in Czechoslovakia. Leshem knew of his father’s Holocaust experiences, although his father did not talk about them in detail when he was a child.

“People didn’t really talk about it then,” Leshem said. “At some point, I made him sit down and I interviewed him on video. That videotape now is part of permanent record of US Holocaust Museum in DC.”

While Greenberg’s family all came to America before World War II, he also heard first-hand accounts of the horrors of the death camps from his in-laws.

After the three decided to work together, they still had to finance a film that would require expensive period settings and location shooting, as well as a large cast. Both Greenberg and Leshem invested their own money in it, and spent a long time looking for other backers, because it was a tough sell.

Asked whether that was because it was a period piece, too depressing or too Jewish, Leshem laughed and said, “All of those things... It’s one of the toughest projects I’ve worked on in my life period. But, I had Joel by me, whispering in my ear. Joel has this way about him that makes you think nothing is impossible.”

Said Greenberg, “I approached it as an outsider. I had a great deal of faith in the project, and I kept telling Matti and Barry and everyone else that we’ll get it done.”

The two credit BRON Studios, a company run by Aaron Gilbert of Canada, with making the film a reality.

Getting Foster on board was another crucial step. “His commitment and the way he wanted to approach this project were so intense,” said Leshem. Having Foster for the lead helped the producing team conquer the final obstacles.

“Everyone who touched this project did it because of a personal connection. We all felt we were part of something that was much larger than we were,” said Leshem.

As thousands watch The Survivor across Israel and millions more stream the film on HBO, they have made sure that the fascinating and unique story of Harry Haft, one survivor out of so many, will come alive for audiences today. For both Greenberg and Leshem, this project has always been more than a movie.

Asked what he hoped younger viewers would get out of seeing the film, Greenberg said, “That they will understand what it took to survive, what it really took, that people didn’t survive unless there was some miraculous part of their story. And that people not forget that six million Jews died and that 1.5 million of them were children. That needs to be remembered. As well, what it took for the survivors to keep going, to build Israel and to build lives in America. The first-hand witnesses are very few at this point and it’s very important that this story not be forgotten.”