Willem Dafoe rose to fame playing the good-guy sergeant in Platoon — the one dying with his arms outstretched like Christ (whom he was pointedly meant to resemble). In Triumph of the Spirit, Dafoe plays another war martyr: Salamo Arouch, a Jewish-Greek boxing champ who was shipped with his family to Auschwitz during World War II.
At a nightclub for S.S. guards, Arouch outboxed various Aryan contenders. To the jaded crowd, he was just another act, like the juggling Gypsy singer (Edward James Olmos), the drag queens, and the Chihuahuas trained to jump rope. Of course, Arouch was fighting for his life.
Filmed on location in Auschwitz, Triumph of the Spirit is a retort to Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious 1935 Nazi film Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl’s victory was one of art and propaganda over truth; Spirit celebrates one man’s daily battle against Nazism in a spare, resolutely realistic way. As a piece of storytelling, it’s not fully satisfying; the drama has no shape. The movie’s appeal is its authenticity and its marvelous conclusion.
The performances, especially those of Olmos and Robert Loggia, are solid, but most of the credit goes to Dafoe.
In Triumph of the Spirit Dafoe accomplishes again what he did in Platoon: he makes you feel what it must have been like to live in the shadow of death.