The Survivor is one of those adult-oriented, mature dramas that don’t come around too often anymore. Fitting, that it is directed by veteran filmmaker Barry Levinson, whose Diner and Rain Man heyday was in the ’80s when films like this made careers. It also stars Ben Foster, an actor who probably would have been more appreciated back then, because he’s simply not built for the studio blockbuster system. He needs a role of considerable heft, think his recent outing in Leave No Trace, for example, to really sink his teeth into.
Fortunately, The Survivor is just such a film. A tremendous, character-driven drama that affords Foster a morally complex role with grueling physicality. He plays Harry Haft, a 1940s-era boxer known alternately as “The Survivor of Auschwitz” and “The Pride of Poland.” Haft was never a great fighter; his prizefighting career ending with a losing record and a brutal, but short, defeat to future world champion Rocky Marciano. The film centers itself around this fight, the biggest and last of Haft’s career.
But The Survivor isn’t an underdog story about Haft becoming a champion. The title is about as on-point as it gets. This is about his survival, not just from the Nazi concentration camps but, in what might have been a tougher fight, life following the war. Justine Juel Gillmer’s screenplay covers three distinct eras in Haft’s life, and all find him doing whatever he needs to do just to make it to the next day. Much of the film takes place during period when he’s trying to earn the Marciano fight, working with newspaperman Emory Anderson (a slick Peter Sarsgaard) to craft a story that will sell him as a worthy contender.
This leads to Haft retelling his story, of being picked by Schneider (Billy Magnussen), a high-ranking Nazi official, to fight in grueling death matches against other Jews, all for entertainment. This puts Haft in the position of having to choose: he can fight for his life and survive, lose and be killed, or do nothing and be killed. Haft chooses to fight, and while it earns him the “respect” of Schneider and the Nazis betting on him, the other prisoners don’t see it that way.
The guilt Haft carries from his decision weighs on him in the present, as he works with Miriam (an excellent Vicky Krieps) to find his long-lost love who was taken away to the camps at the same time as him. His relationship with Miriam evolves romantically over the years, taking us to the latter stage of Haft’s life as he continues to struggle with a past that he simply can’t escape.
The Survivor is a tricky film to pull off, because Haft’s story isn’t typical for a sports drama, and isn’t framed like a typical biopic, either. For instance, the Marciano fight, his big moment, comes halfway through and ends in whopping defeat. We see him go through his training, with the aid of Marciano confidante Charlie Goldman (Danny DeVito), who tells him he’s “just trying to help” Harry to survive. That’s what it was always about. Winning was never in the picture. Haft would have to do what he’s always done, which is come through the other side.
And because of that mentality, Haft is a different kind of subject. He’s also a little tough to like. While you understand WHY he did what he did in the camps, seeing it is another thing. Shot in black and white, his fights are absolutely barbaric. The worst is a grueling 30-round slugfest against a French champion. Battered, bruised, bloody, Haft is a grisly mess by the time it’s over. But what makes these brawls so hard to watch are Haft’s opponents, who know they’ve basically been set up for execution. Some of them fight hard to win, wanting to die with some dignity. Some give up. All leave an indelible mark on Haft that can’t shake, and we see it wearing on him over the years.
Foster is, of course, magnificent, undergoing a physical transformation for every phase of Haft’s life. How he goes from skeletal during the camp era, to a brutish slugger in his physical prime, to a chunky dad bod later is beyond me but he does it. But what’s truly impressive is how he shows Haft carrying his deepest, darkest secrets and regrets. Foster, who let’s be honest is long overdue for an Oscar nomination, has a number of scenes that could earn him one.
The Survivor is not an easy movie. Nor should it be. Haft led a life where he fought, both literally and figuratively, to get beyond the unfathomable pain of his past. Levinson has delivered a film worthy of the man who took all of life’s punches and lived to tell the tale.