Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Robert M. Young|
|Produced by||Shimon Arama|
|Written by||Andrzej Krakowski|
|Music by||Cliff Eidelman|
|Edited by||Norman Buckley|
|Distributed by||Triumph Releasing Corporation|
|December 8, 1989|
Triumph of the Spirit is a 1989 American biographical drama film directed by Robert M. Young and starring Willem Dafoe and Edward James Olmos. The screenplay was inspired by true events, the same as the older Slovak film The Boxer and Death directed by Peter Solan. The majority of the film is set in the German Nazi death camp at Auschwitz during the Holocaust and details how the Jewish Greek boxer Salamo Arouch was forced to fight other internees to the death for the SS guards' entertainment. Prior to Triumph of the Spirit, no major feature film had ever been shot on location at Auschwitz.
A stevedore in Thessaloniki, Greece, Salamo Arouch's passion is boxing. Captured along with his family and fiancé Allegra in 1943 and interned in Auschwitz, Arouch is used by his SS captors as entertainment, forced to box against fellow prisoners. He knows that if he refuses, his family will be punished; if he wins, he will be given extra rations which he can share with them; if he loses, he will be sent to the gas chamber. As his family and friends die around him, he has only his love of Allegra and his grim determination to keep her alive.
The film follows the early life story of Salamo Arouch, though it takes some artistic liberties including the early introduction of wife Allegra (a pseudonym for Marta Yechiel), whom Arouch did not actually meet until after the liberation of the camp.
Young was reluctant to make the film when he was first approached with the script, finding the topic too momentous to cover; he only agreed to direct when provided a script that focused only on one small element, "like a cork, bubbling on the surface of the sea." The film, which positions Arouch as a witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, was shot on a budget of US$12 million. Filming with permission at the Auschwitz concentration camp, producers were able to utilize some existing structures but were also tasked with recreating a crematory given the condition of those that remain. The film also shot briefly in Israel.
The title of the film is suggestive of human triumph, a view to which star Dafoe subscribed, but others, including actor Olmos perceived its impact differently: "[W]hat does...[the film] project? The moral decay needed to survive in the camp." Lawrence Baron, the author of 2005's Projecting the Holocaust Into the Present, agreed, stating that "the cumulative impression...undermines whatever uplifting impact its title and publicity imply.... A closer scrutiny of the movie reveals that it is not about the triumph of the spirit but rather about 'choiceless choices', to use Lawrence Langer's term for the dilemma faced by death camp inmates, who were never offered any moral alternatives to prolong their survival." Baron suggests that this message is crystallized in one scene where Arouch is set to fight his best friend Jacko, who has already been beaten by the guards, knowing that the loser will be consigned to the gas chamber; when he balks, his friend is executed on the spot.
In its review, The New York Times praised the performances of Dafoe ("harrowingly good") and Robert Loggia ("a memorably physical performance"), but complained that the film overall is "thoroughly mundane", obvious and sentimental, also singling out for criticism the "outstandingly intrusive score". Also taking note of the "intrusive score", Rolling Stone found all of the cast melodramatic with the exception of Dafoe's "disciplined performance" and dismissed the film as "earnest but woefully misguided".Time Magazine noted that the film "is too respectful of its subject to find more in it than noble cliches", highlighting Young's "bland direction" and concluding that "[t]he film's only and considerable virtue lies in its documentation of the desperate strategies people devised to stay alive in the death camps."Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times felt that, by showcasing the fights and expecting viewers to root for Arouch, the filmmakers in effect force audiences to behave no differently from the Nazis in the story. The 2005 book Projecting the Holocaust Into the Present, though acknowledging the generally negative critical reviews, opines that "Young's depiction of the ethical vacuum that the Nazis devised at Auschwitz makes the movie disturbing and effective."