Runtime: 129 Minutes
Director: Barry Levinson
Writer(s): Justine Juel Gillmer
Stars: Ben Foster, Billy Magnussen, Danny Devito, John Leguizamo, Vicky Krieps
“Rain Man” (1988) director Barry Levinson returns to delve into the dark story of an Auschwitz survivor fighting his past and wrestling with survivor’s guilt.
“The Survivor”(2021) is a biographical depiction of Harry Haft’s (Ben Foster) struggles after surviving Auschwitz by fighting in forced boxing tournaments and then continuing to fight in order to find a first love he was separated from during the Holocaust. We’ve seen plenty of Holocaust stories portrayed in films throughout the years that depict the atrocities afflicted to the Jews by the Nazis. Levinson, however, keeps the brutality shown focused and purposeful by harshly depicting the mental and physical scars that surviving has on Haft. Even years later, it’s easy to see the damage that Haft faced in fighting with how swollen and bulgy his face is compared to when we see him in the camp making Foster nearly unrecognizable.
Foster is one of those underrated talents that makes any appearance by him a can’t miss experience and that’s especially true here with how he immerses himself into playing Haft. Foster is able to exude the tough and resilient persona that Haft has both in and out of the ring, but also evokes the trauma and mental scars that haunt him. From this, there’s some deep-seeded darkness that continually grows as Haft gets older and struggles to confront and talk about the price he paid for surviving, but that doesn’t mean that Foster only shows Haft to be this dark, brooding presence. For the most part, he’s very likeable, good-hearted, and genuinely shows compassion in tough situations and his desires for him to reunite with a separated love adds to him being a genuine, tragic hero whose resilience is shown even further in the way that Haft’s story shifts between past and present.
“The Survivor” tells Haft’s story as a time-bouncing tragedy that showcases the horrifying extent that Haft was pushed to in order to survive and the tragic state that it leaves him for years to come. When with Haft in his time at Auschwitz, Levinson creates this visceral portrayal of survival that’s grueling, unrelenting, and gives a different perspective on Nazis treating the Jews as tools of destruction. Every time he’s thrown into the ring, it’s gut-wrenching as he’s forced to fight for the entertainment of the Nazis and the financial benefit of his “handler” Schneider (Billy Magnussen). The choice for black and white cinematography for scenes set in the past works incredibly well in not focusing on the bloodshed itself and rather the impact of each blow. Also, Magnussen shows his dramatic side really well and helps flesh out this more grounded and personal view of the Nazi regime that’s harsh and horrifying in its own right.
Haft’s past is nicely weaved throughout the film and plays a pivotal role in seeing how he’s still haunted by it and now carries an immense amount of survivor’s guilt. Even as Haft gears up for a career boosting fight and yearns to find a former love, there are moments that show the damage Haft’s time in Auschwitz has caused him and the guilt he feels for what he ended up being a part of. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal of survivor’s guilt that’s subtly shown in how other Polish survivors like Haft stay silent about their survival and even criticize Haft for speaking about it. It might’ve been nice for Levinson to delve deeper into the Polish community’s silence and survivor’s guilt since its kind of an underdiscussed part of the film, but his depiction is slowly growing on me, and this guilt and anguish is excellently displayed in Haft’s story.
The only aspect of Haft’s journey that doesn’t reach its potential is this first love that’s supposedly driving him throughout the film. Although their relationship was short, Haft’s feelings for his first love Leah (Dar Zuzovsky) only strengthen with time and his constant search for her really shows human shades of his character. However, their relationship feels thin and kind of fades into the background of the film only to suddenly show up in the film’s final moments. The conclusion of this storyline has some good emotion to it, and I get that the point of there not being much of their relationship stems from it being a short relationship, but it just makes the film’s revisiting of this relationship feel tacked on and not as strong as it could’ve been if there had been just a few beats of it along the way.
“The Survivor” is a strong showing for Levinson’s direction and Foster’s immersive performing that comes together to create a unique Holocaust survival story that focuses on the cost of survival and one man’s fight to move forward.