The Survivor, 2021.
Directed by Barry Levinson.
Starring Ben Foster, Vicky Krieps, Billy Magnussen, Peter Sarsgaard, John Leguizamo, Danny DeVito, Dar Zuzovsky, and Saro Emirze.
Harry Haft is a boxer who fought fellow prisoners in the concentration camps to survive. Haunted by the memories and his guilt, he attempts to use high-profile fights against boxing legends like Rocky Marciano as a way to find his first love again.
Barry Levinson’s first theatrical feature in six years – since the wretched Rock the Kasbah – is a rock solid return to form, for despite its unambitious, over-familiar presentation, this sports-Holocaust drama boasts a thermonuclear performance from the great Ben Foster.
Foster plays Harry Haft, a Jewish man who was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, and given an ultimatum by one of the Nazi officers, Dietrich Schneider (Billy Magnussen) – partake in boxing matches with his fellow prisoners, or die on the spot.
Winning is survival, as those who lose each fight are summarily executed. Haft ends up living long enough to be liberated, and in 1949 makes it to America, where he continues to doggedly pursue Leah (Dar Zuzovsky), his young love who was separated from him eight years prior in Poland. Without other prospects, Haft resumes boxing in America despite the looming spectre of PTSD, where trainer Charlie Goldman (Danny DeVito) preps him for an upcoming fight with the legendary Rocky Marciano, and he finds possible love once more with aid worker Miriam (Vicky Krieps).
Right from its very first scene, it’s clear that The Survivor isn’t pushing the boat out in terms of either its storytelling or style. Fleeting restlessly between three timelines – early-to-mid 1940s in Auschwitz, 1949 in New York, and 1963 in Georgia – Haft’s story is framed by an opportunistic journalist, Emory Anderson (Peter Sarsgaard), who convinces Haft to tell him the whole tale.
But this typical framing device feels a little less stock in Levinson’s film because it’s so thoroughly about the merits of having one’s story heard. As it turns out, though, Harry has an ulterior motive for putting his experience out there, hopeful that having his story published might catch the attention of his missing love Leah, on the off-chance she’s residing in the tri-state area in 1949.
One of Harry’s friends tells him to just keep quiet about the horrors he experienced in the camp, but it’s clear that he can find some measure of catharsis in having his story be seen, no matter that it causes some to label him a traitor to his own kind.
Such is the horrifying dilemma of Haft’s time in the camp, that the many dozens of people he defeated in the ring were all sent to their deaths as a result, a reality that clearly weighed heavily on him for years afterwards, no matter that refusal would have meant his own demise. These fights aren’t always brief either, evidently, as one slog of a match ends up lasting 30 rounds, with Haft finally coming out on top after snapping his opponent’s arm.
The boxing portion of the film dovetails into a deceptively off-kilter Holocaust character study, of a man suffering not so much through typical survivor’s guilt as his very palpable upset at, in a roundabout way, sending his fellow prisoners to die in defeat.
As much as director Levinson has been responsible for a glut of unassailable classics, he’s always had more of a workman filmmaking style, and at 79 years of age, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he’s changed nothing for his new film. The stylistic choices borrow pretty liberally from what we’ve seen before; the flashing camera bulbs and slow motion boxing photography of Raging Bull, and the admittedly evocative black-and-white Holocaust aesthetic of Schindler’s List.
That’s not to say these flourishes aren’t effective to a point, but they do feel like pat affectations rather than turns of style that support Ben Foster’s performance. Speaking of which, Foster will surprise nobody with his expectedly wildly committed turn, once again disappearing into a role with absolute, chameleonic dedication.
Foster lost 60 pounds for the scenes in which he plays an emaciated Auschwitz prisoner, and this is perhaps where Levinson’s restless, timeline-hopping approach serves the film best, providing a sharp contrast between the rail-thin captive and filled-out Haft of years later.
From his totally convincing accent to the agonising guilt he wears on his face, it’s an outstanding performance. Prosthetic designer Jamie Kelman also deserves considerable credit for his work ageing Foster up for the 1960s portion of the film. Such makeup jobs can often look silly and, worse still, encroach upon an actor’s physical performance, but it’s ultimately pretty seamless work that only enhances what Foster is able to do.
Elsewhere Vicky Krieps is a picture of calm as the sweet Miriam, a woman who is herself wounded by wartime heartbreak after her lover never returned home. Her unresolved love story matches Harry’s own, and the chemistry between the two actors sells the unique bond they share as a result. Danny DeVito is fun for a few all-too-brief scenes as Harry’s temporary trainer Charlie Goldman, bringing some welcome comic relief to the fore with his typically gregarious persona, though DeVito also nails a scene in which Goldman outlines his own tragic past.
By far the strangest and riskiest casting choice is that of Billy Magnussen, better known to mainstream audiences for his broader comedy roles, yet cast here as the primary Nazi character. To Magnussen’s absolute credit, though, he delivers a fittingly menacing performance, while rendering a monstrous character who has enough shade to not feel like a mere cartoon character.
The primary appeal of Levinson’s film is that it will allow a wider audience to learn Harry Haft’s story, all while providing a moving chronicle of the man’s quest to find closure, as pays off with a deeply affecting climax.
The Survivor is effectively two conventional-to-a-fault movies for the price one, but Ben Foster’s incredibly gripping, all-in performance makes it well worth watching.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.