On A big screen, the footage of an emaciated man being pushed by jeering Nazi soldiers into a makeshift boxing ring is jaw-dropping.
Hours after viewing six minutes of footage from director Barry Levinson’s film Harry Haft, I’m sitting on the Carlton Hotel terrace with the filmmaker and his star Ben Foster, who plays the real-life title character: the man being forced into the ring.
‘You either fight the other person, or you die,’ Levinson explained. ‘You win, you live. Or you lose and they throw you…’ The man whose film credits include Rain Man, Diner and Good Morning Vietnam, does not complete his sentence.
‘It’s about choices made,’ Levinson said of the picture he has been filming in Budapest. (When we met on Tuesday night, he was about to head to New York to complete shooting with Foster, Vicky Krieps, Peter Sarsgaard and Danny DeVito, for producer Aaron Gilbert and Bron Studios.)
Foster, who starred in Debra Granik’s film Leave No Trace and who made his big screen debut in Levinson’s Liberty Heights 20 years ago, told me the film opens in 1963 with Haft remembering what happened to him in the concentration camps, and how he kept thinking of the woman he loved.
And how the last time he saw her, she was in the back of a truck, being driven away by the Nazis.
The story spans three decades, showing how Haft goes from the camps to the inside of a ring in the United States (where he fought Rocky Marciano in 1949) and, in the Sixties, his son’s Bar Mitzvah.
‘It’s not a Holocaust movie,’ Foster told me. ‘It’s not a boxing movie. It’s a human story. We need to pay attention to history in order to move forward. What is the cost of survival for the survivor? And that is the question posed, not the question answered.’
I was struck by how frighteningly thin he looked in the reel I saw at Cannes; and how bulky he is now. He showed me a series of a dozen photographs Jamie Kelman, the prosthetics and make-up designer, had taken of him during the course of filming.
How were the changes achieved? Kelman took care of ageing, bruising and scars. ‘But the weight loss and gain had to be real,’ Foster said. ‘They said they had the computer technology to take care of that and I said: ‘Well, you have the wrong actor.’
He lit a cigar then continued: ‘We made a verbal agreement with Barry and Aaron not to go digital, because the body has to tell the narrative. I dropped 60lb for the first fight in the camps. It was a progressive diet and it took five months before we started filming. There is a science to it. There were nutritionists and trainers involved, because we had to go to the limit of what was physically possible. Then I had to put it all back on again, in order to be a heavyweight.’
Foster grimaced when I asked about the agonies involved. ‘Agony is definitely the wrong word to use. I came home to a hotel each night, with a nice bed.
‘This is luxury. I lost and gained weight in luxury. I had that choice.
‘It’s profound, what these men and women and children went through.
‘And we’re making this film at a time when the same thing is in the air again. In Paris, in Christchurch, in California and elsewhere. What’s happening now frightens me, as a new parent, to my core.’
Distributors were also shown the footage at Cannes and the hope is the film will be finished in time for release late this year or early next.