July 2022


Modes of Grief
The Survivor, Babyteeth

Miles David Moore

Among the many films that have been made about the Holocaust, some of the most powerful have concerned the survivors—their grief at having survived when so many millions did not, and the ongoing mental damage they suffered.  Schindler's List, Sophie's Choice, The Pawnbroker, Fateless, Europa Europa and Remember are among those that cover different aspects of the Holocaust and those who survived it.  The latest such film, Barry Levinson's The Survivor on HBO Max, is the story of a boxer who literally fought for survival in Auschwitz.

With a screenplay by Justine Juel Gillmer based on a book by Alan Scott Haft, The Survivor covers the life of Haft's father, Hertzko "Harry" Haft (Ben Foster), who as the film opens is a boxer in 1949 New York.  Harry's record as a fighter is less than stellar, yet he seeks a bout with the unbeatable Rocky Marciano.  As it turns out, Haft has no expectation of beating Marciano.  Years ago in Poland, before the Nazis hauled them both away to the camps, Harry loved a girl named Leah (Dar Zuzovsky).  He feels in his heart that Leah is still alive and believes that if she hears about a Marciano-Haft fight, she will contact him. In his campaign to get publicity, Harry gives an interview to a sleazy reporter (Peter Sarsgaard) who turns out eventually to know more than he lets on.


Harry gets his bout with Marciano, but if you think that's the crux of the story, think again.  The Survivor has nearly an hour to go after the fight occurs, and that portion is the true heart of the movie—the story of a decent but brutalized man trying to get something back after losing everything, and who must learn to let go of his rage to take his place in the world as a husband and father. After years in the camps, that is much easier said than done.  Harry deals constantly with otherwise ordinary situations that bring back unbearable memories for him.  One of the saddest scenes in the film is set in Harry's honeymoon suite after he marries Miriam (Vicky Krieps).  I will not describe it; you must see it for yourselves.

Much of Harry's brutalization comes at the hands of Nazi officer Dietrich Schneider (Billy Magnussen), who establishes himself as Harry's protector -manager in Auschwitz.  Schneider fancies himself an Ubermensch,above the usual run of anti-Semitic brutes who guard the camp.  He likes to remind Harry that he owes his life to him; he stopped the guards from shooting Harry after he decked one of them.  In time, we see what Schneider's philanthropy truly consists of, and Harry's "gratitude" in response.

Levinson shoots the Auschwitz scenes in black and white, which effectively differentiates them from the scenes in America but feels slightly cliched after Schindler's List.  Nevertheless, The Survivor is a powerful film.  Levinson benefits from Gillmer's screenplay; from the photography of George Steel and the production design of Miljen Kreka Kljakovic; and, above all, from his excellent cast.  Sarsgaard, John Leguizamo and Levinson regular Danny DeVito make sharp impressions in their small roles.  Magnussen is appropriately, smugly hateful as Schneider, and Vicky Krieps is lovely as Miriam, a character totally opposite from her death-giving persona in The Phantom Thread. 


But The Survivor ultimately stands or falls on the casting of Harry, and with Ben Foster the film stands very tall indeed. Throughout his career Foster has specialized in playing damaged characters, in such films and TV programs as 3:10 to Yuma, Leave No Trace, Hell or High Water, Six Feet Under, and an extraordinary broadcast from the Young Vic in which he played Stanley Kowalski to Gillian Anderson's Blanche du Bois.  His Harry Haft is of a piece with these roles, except that Harry is a vastly better man than most of them and has a much happier fate.  Foster's defining scenes come at the beginning and end of The Survivor, when Levinson has Harry walking alone down a Florida beach. The look in Foster's eyes is unforgettable; it's the look of a man who has been attacked all his life, who has learned to distrust everyone and everything, but who has finally realized that life is better than he was taught to believe.  At the very end, the newly wise Harry tells Miriam a quiet joke that sums up the emotional content not only of the film, but of human existence.

Tragedy and grief can engulf millions or a single family.  Babyteeth, the feature film debut of Australian TV director Shannon Murphy available for rent on Amazon Prime, is the story of a private grief, made all the more powerful by the way Murphy and screenwriter Rita Kalnejais choose to tell it.

Babyteeth refers to Milla (Eliza Scanlen), the 16-year-old protagonist, who still has one of hers.  (This becomes a powerful metaphor toward the end.)  At the beginning we see her with her school friends at a train station. Milla's friends are talking about the upcoming prom, but we notice that Milla isn't listening to them.  Instead, she is staring intently at the tracks, and immediately we fear the worst. 


Milla is jolted back to reality by a young man who jumps, for no apparent reason, between her and an incoming train.  The young man is Moses (Toby Wallace), a 23-year-old drug addict who has been kicked out of his mother's house.  Seeing that Milla's nose is bleeding, Moses whips off his
T-shirt and holds it against her nose to stanch the blood.  He then asks her for money.

The next scene is between Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), a psychiatrist, and Anna (Essie Davis), his patient, in Henry's office.  At first it seems like Henry and Anna are indulging in illicit drugs and sex, but a phone call alerts us to the context: Henry and Anna are (a) married and (b) Milla's parents.  A little later, when Anna takes Milla to her violin lesson with old family friend Gidon (Eugene Gilfedder), the audience learns almost accidentally that Milla is dying from an unspecified type of cancer.


Proceeding in short chapters with laconic or ironic titles, Babyteeth is less the story of Milla's last days than of (to borrow a phrase from E.M. Forster) the difficulty of living in the universe.  As Milla—wearing a series of wigs to not so much cover as flout her baldness—tries to crowd as much life as she can into her last few months, Anna and Henry try to do everything they can to make her happy. Moses is the wild card.  Anna and Henry do not like or trust him; it's hard to trust anyone who breaks into your house to steal prescription drugs, or deserts your underage daughter at an all-night rave.  But Moses makes Milla happy, so Anna and Henry grit their teeth and entice him into her life.


Murphy and Kalnejais keep viewers slightly off kilter throughout the film, mirroring the grief and incomprehension they would feel at the pending loss of a loved one dying far too young.  They are aided by the extraordinary performances of the four lead actors.  As Milla struggles to come to terms with her mortality, Anna, Henry, and Moses struggle to become better people for her sake.  Scanlen—who played Beth March, a very different type of dying girl, in Greta Gerwig's Little Women—moves us to the quick, but Davis, Mendelsohn, and especially Wallace have the most interesting roles.  Wallace won the David di Donatello Award at the Venice Film Festival, and he deserved it. Wallace makes Toby a magnetic presence, and in his performance we see the transformation of a wastrel, almost against his will, into the beginnings of a decent human being.  James Dean couldn't have done better.

Babyteeth won awards around the world, but I never heard of it until a friend recommended it to me.  I thank him for his recommendation.  Babyteeth employs many cinematic devices, but not the ones we're used to seeing in a film like this.  Murphy and Kalnejais hold off the tears until near the end, making them feel merited and real.  The final image of a calm seashore might seem cliched in other hands than Murphy's. Here, it represents our common destiny and the peace we all hope to achieve.



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Miles David Moore | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2022 Miles David Moore
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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