Friday 23 August 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 55. The Boxer and Death

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

The Boxer and Death
Director - Peter Solan
Country - Czechoslovakia
Year 1963
Runtime - 120 minutes

The resourcefulness of those persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust coupled with the serendipitous nature of possessing a certain skill, craft or trade that helped the oppressed survive has been the central conceit for many profound war films. Roman Polanski's The Pianist and Stefan Ruzowitsky's The Counterfeiters feature protagonists who are saved from horrific fates thanks to their usefulness to the cruel authorities who oversee the concentration camps or ghettos they are detained in. Those who survived to see another day in such abominable places were destined to pay a terrible price as the guilt and remorse of seeing their close companions taken to the gas chambers inevitably weighed heavily upon their emotional state of mind.

An overlooked Czechoslovakian film that explores this very notion is Peter Solan's moving drama from 1963, The Boxer and Death. It tells a powerful tale of a Jewish pugilist, Jan Kominek (Stefan Kvietik), whose life is spared when a Nazi commandant fond of boxing, Kraft (Manfred Krug) - who is in charge of the concentration camp where Jan is captive - takes Jan for his sparring partner. Jan is given extra food to gain weight and increase his strength for these sparring matches but this advantageous position causes friction between the boxer and some of the other camp's inhabitants. As well as facing hostilities from his peers, Jan also struggles when facing Kraft in the ring. He understands that it is important not to overstep his mark when throwing punches and this proves to be a difficult undertaking. Jan is presented with the perfect opportunity to take out his frustrations on the commandant and his true feelings threaten to bubble up to the surface as the bouts increase in intensity.

A mutual yet tenuous bond of respect and, to a certain degree, friendship is formed between these two men as they train together. The vast differences in their circumstances prevents a genuine connection from ever being possible given the situation but it is fascinating to see how their time spent boxing together becomes an important release for both of them. It provides Kraft with a way to flex his power and indulge his domineering nature on a weaker man, whilst also allowing him to feel good about helping out someone in desperate need of hope, and it encourages Jan to quite literally fight for a chance to make it through the oppressive Nazi regime with his body and soul intact.

Kvietik imbues his character with an innate hunger for survival that is demonstrated wonderfully in an early scene where he defies Kraft by dodging punches which are being inflicted upon him due to a failed escape attempt. This is the incidental but defining moment that acts as a catalyst for Jan, bringing his attention to Kraft and initiating a gradual change in his outlook through the boxing that enables his strength and hope to return. Krug is equally as compelling as Kraft, showcasing a human side to a man who has been swept up by the spread of Nazism and begins to display signs of doubt surrounding the final solution. Both actors possess a natural skill in the ring that lends credence to their exceptional performances, and the vigorous boxing bouts are capable of holding your attention as much as the scenes which deal with the weightier themes of the Holocaust.

In addition to the exceptionally choreographed fight scenes where Jan faces up to Kraft, he is constantly portrayed as battling his own personal demons and this is represented by the stunning cinematography and direction by Peter Solan. Smoke engulfs Jan as he trains near the camp's chimneys in a sombre and haunting sequence, momentarily clouding his judgement and adding to his inner turmoil, whilst also serving as a stark reminder that he is clinging on to life by the smallest of threads. This is powerful film-making, rife with thought-provoking symbolism and poignant, evocative shots that allude to the horrors of war without resorting to depicting the full graphic extent of the barbarity that took place at these camps.

Like the aforementioned films which tackle a similar subject matter, The Boxer and Death is an emotionally draining yet essential viewing experience, albeit one that has sadly slipped into obscurity. It may be a harrowing tale about the atrocities of war but it is also a stirring sports drama, an intimate character study, and a thrilling struggle between two men with radically opposing views. Films as potent as this deserve to reach a much wider audience; the valuable lessons contained within are impressed upon the viewer with a deftness of touch that is rare given the provocative nature of the troubling time in history it depicts. Solan has crafted a memorable film with an important message and a gripping storyline that resonates on a deep level as we contemplate the eternal scarring suffered by those who survived through such a horrific, life-altering ordeal.

If you take the time to watch The Boxer and Death then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

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