It’s strange to say that a film based around the Holocaust is more hopeful than a number of TIFF entries, but it’s true. Barry Levinson’s The Survivor is based on the real life story of Hertzko Haft, a jewish boxer who survived Auschwitz by fighting 76 brutal life or death matches against other Jewish prisoners, only to carry that trauma into his postwar life. The director teams up again with Ben Foster, who he worked with on 1999’s Liberty Heights, and as Haft, the actor is the best he’s ever been. The Survivor is hopeful, in part, because Levinson has a way of finding the balance between the darkness and light in his movies, and in part because the Jews of the world didn’t come out of the Holocaust without reaching for hope. Still, there are scenes that are completely heartbreaking in Australian screenwriter Justine Gillmer’s script, which spent time on the Black List and is based on the book Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano written by Haft’s own son Alan Scott Haft.
The film begins by showing Haft postwar, now in America, and renamed Harry. His story goes back and forth between chronicling struggles after WW2, and his experience in the concentration camp. The time during the war and afterwards are clearly defined by separating them using black and white and color film. Postwar Harry sees cues of his abuse and trauma everywhere; in the peephole of a door, in fireworks, flashbulbs, or verbal cues during a fight. They all take him back. Those memories leech into every aspect of his life. In America, he embarks on a short career as a prize fighter. Driven by a desire to find Leah, a woman he loved in the camps, Haft wants the publicity of fighting Rocky Marciano, so she might see his name in the newspapers. He’s supported in that goal by Displaced Persons Service worker Miriam (Vicky Krieps) but she’s in for an unpleasant experience watching the fight. When he is getting beaten nearly senseless by Rocky Marciano, he keeps getting up like his life depends on it. Of course he does. For the entire length of his time being used as entertainment in Auschwitz, losing meant death from a shot in the head.
Through it all, Foster brings 100% to Haft. I’ve always contended that Ben Foster is one of the best actors performing today, and in The Survivor, he carries the film by playing Haft with depth, utter conviction, and fearlessness. In a move reminiscent of De Niro’s method madness in Raging Bull, Foster lost over 60 pounds for the concentration camp scenes, and gained them all back to portray the fighter in various scenes of his postwar experience in America. More impressive than that, however, are Foster’s economy of movement outside the boxing ring, and the haunted look that never quite leaves his eyes. Those are what the actor uses to anchor his portrayal. No doubt some of that laser focus and depth are the result of the actor’s lifelong discipline of using transcendental meditation.
Ably aiding him are co-stars Billy Magnussen as the Nazi officer, who truly believes he’s doing Haft a favor in forcing him to fight his fellow inmates to the death, and Krieps as Miriam, the woman that, with Haft, falls for a broken man constantly questioning the morality of his own survival.
As to Levinson’s direction, he rarely stoops to sentimentality or what we’ve come to know as trauma porn, which explains why he offers scenes in the camp sparingly. Still, it’s hard to overcome some of the dependable tropes used in holocaust films.
He does keep the focus more on Haft’s struggle with his past and less on cataloging that trauma. Everyone knows it would be impossible to really capture those horrors in a narrative film, but Levinson makes a valiant effort. One example of how the director captures his struggle is in the beautiful synagogue scene, in which Haft and Miriam talk about God. She believes prayer and God are more important than ever for the jews, who have lost so much, but Haft tells her a story. His sister had given birth, and the nazis came two hours later, taking the baby from her arms and throwing him into the back of a truck. He says, “it’s easy to find God in a synagogue, but where was god when they threw that baby into the back of that truck?” Levinson’s cinematographer George Steel places Haft in shadow, and bathes Miriam in the light of the synagogue’s windows. That’s about as heavy-handed as The Survivor gets, but it works precisely because he and Steel use symbolic visuals so sparingly.
In one of the last scenes of The Survivor, Levinson expresses, through the characters, a moment of true patriotism. Does it dip into sentimentality? Perhaps, but it’s also moving and beautifully inclusive, ending the film on a hopeful note. Speaking of hope, here’s wishing The Survivor success. On Ben Foster’s performance alone it deserves Oscar attention.
3 1/2 out of 5 stars.