It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Triumph of the Spirit" goes to great lengths to establish a basis in fact. It is inspired by a true story, we are told, the story of a Greek Jew who survived the Holocaust because he was an expert boxer.
And it is the first fiction film to be shot on location in the death camp of Auschwitz. Every detail is accurate, down to the wooden shoes worn by the prisoners and the crusts of bread thrown onto their dinner plates.
I am impressed by the attention to detail demonstrated by the director, Robert M. Young, but I do not consider it a certificate of authenticity. Every serious story, especially one about a subject such as the Holocaust, must find its own inner truth, and on the inside, "Triumph of the Spirit" is hollow. It is never able to decide exactly what its story is saying, or should say. Blinded by the fact that the story is based on a man's life, that it "actually happened," the film seems to assume that the message is in the very accuracy itself. But at the end we feel confused and unsatisfied.
The film is the story of a man named Salamo (Willem Dafoe), a Greek shipped to Auschwitz, where he might have died if his Nazi captors had not discovered that he was a championship boxer. As an entertainment one evening, they set up a boxing match, which Salamo wins. They make him fight again. Money is wagered on the outcome, and soon Salamo's fights are part of the Nazi social schedule; the officers gather once a week to eat, drink and watch prisoners pound one another.