An intimate collection of postwar memories, “Fighter” is a powerful, heartfelt and funny docu that serves as a respectful nod to the aging generation of World War II survivors. Director Amir Bar-Lev’s feature debut gracefully examines the hardened souls of victims and provides many uplifting moments that will touch even the most cynical viewer. Pic should be a festival fave and will surely get noticed by TV programmers looking for inspirational fare.
“Fighter” is fueled by extreme sadness, but its humor and optimism shine brightly. On this unorthodox road trip, two European Jews who lived through Nazism buddy up to recall death, torture and survival. But instead of dwelling on their psychological wounds, Jan Wiener and Arnost Lustig laugh, bicker, schmooze and charm their way through a violent past.
Role models don’t come any bigger than Wiener. A 77-year-old who lives in Lenox, Mass., and still boxes, the handsome Czech hooks up with 72-year-old Lustig, a professor and author who has decided to document his friend’s life.
The men arrive in Prague, and sorrow instantly surfaces. First, Wiener goes to an old office where a collaborator told him as a child that he wouldn’t live to wear out one pair of shoes. Wiener then recounts that as a decorated hero six years later, he returned with an intent to kill.
They then begin a “tour”: visiting the run-down labor site where Wiener was imprisoned for five years; a Terezin ghetto and concentration camp where Lustig spent his formative years and where Wiener’s mother was killed; and a stowaway route on which Wiener hid under a train for 18 hours.
They also retrace Wiener’s escape route through Slovenia, while he recounts his father’s suicide. Project’s final destination is Cosenza, Italy, a town full of people who helped him to flee.
Everything about “Fighter” is a lesson in courage and compassion. Wiener and Lustig are certainly casualties fully qualified to carry grudges, but their desire for inner peace has, over time, squashed any hatred they’ve harbored. Bar-Lev constantly draws attention to that durable moral fiber, beautifully capturing conversations that always end with a joke or a smile. Even when they fight — shooting stopped for four days after an argument — they eventually meet on the beach for a game of chess.
Technically, “Fighter” is sound all around. Pristine footage from propaganda films, including the Nazi “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews,” are used to great effect; d.p. Gary Griffin does terrific work with some difficult and dark locations; and well-chosen classical music selections heighten much of the emotion.