The key to making a believable Holocaust film does not necessarily need the best actors or even the best director. What is does need, on the other hand, is a good screenplay, which tells a better story. For a film goer such as myself, I look for believability, i.e. props, set, location, screenplay…etc.
The 1989 film Triumph of the Spirit caught my attention, similar to Schindler’s List, because it was filmed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in Poland and everything was authentic. Since many of the people involved in this horrid act have died, it is our job as an audience to imagine this terrible experience, and to do so, we rely on the images and dialogue provided by the director.
To film on the very Earth that so many people have died makes the film all the more terrifying, yet at the same time, amazing. Unfortunately, although the set was spine-chilling, the acting and the story were a bit lacking.
Director Robert M. Young, known for his TV series Battlestar Galactica, seemed confused as to the genre of this film. For example, the props were 100% authentic, giving a more natural experience, but Young put very little emphasis on the props making the authenticity irrelevant.
I found myself asking, is this a movie about the Holocaust, or an incarcerated Jewish boxer? Is it about a boxer who survived this genocide through boxing, or is it about the Holocaust and how it was motivation to survive? This film has a difficult time finding out its true self, and because of this, some scenes are amazing, but many are not. I like to compare this film to those I.Q. test where you have to pick the icons that do not belong, instead, I did it with many of the scenes.
Triumph of the Spirit tells the true story of Salamo Arouch (Willem Dafoe), the Greek-born Jewish boxer who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp because of an undefeated boxing record. As entertainment one evening, Salamo’s Nazi captivators found out that he was once a boxing champion and forced him to fight. It is here where a strange irony forms: the only way the Nazi’s will ever consider you to be an asset is if consistently triumph in a sport…in this case boxing. Motivated by this strange, yet lucky bit of irony as well as his dying father, played by Robert Loggia, Salamo must face the most challenging of decisions: if he wins a match, he sends the loser to die, and if he loses, he dies.
Even though Salamo becomes relatively famous and earns a bit of pull among his fellow prisoners, he is still powerless when attempting to save his own fathers life. But than again, every Holocaust movie has that feeling of powerless. Linking up with one of the Gypsy prisoners (Edward James Olmos), who reminded me of a Morgan Freeman-type character from The Shawshank Redemption, a guy who can get things for you, but as the film reveals, he cannot get you everything.
One particular scene that had an impact on me occurred after Solomon and his family are boarded on the cattle cars to be sent to Auschwitz. During a specific night scene where he is standing among packs of ghostly Jewish silhouettes and the lights from nearby Auschwitz light up the train car, as if the souls of the passengers are trying desperately to escape, yet cannot. The solo aria in the background seems to only add more of a hopelessness and despair.
The biggest concern I had for this film was the need for the specific boxing scene. Was it necessary? I found myself rooting for Salamo, not just to win the match but to survive, but the Nazi captors were also rooting for him. I felt offensive to be rooting for the same guy as the very men forcing him to fight. These scenes could have been removed and the film would have the same impact.