Barry Levinson’s new film “The Survivor”, which was released on HBO Max a few weeks ago, patiently and thoughtfully presents the guilt and trauma of one Holocaust survivor. While never sentimental or exploitative in its stark depiction of the evil and horror he endured during that grim period, the movie calmly looks into his deeply traumatized psyche as well as his harrowing struggle for closure, and the overall result is all the more memorable thanks to one of the strongest lead performances of this year.
Ben Foster, an ever-reliable character actor who can be subtly intense and powerful without never being showy at all, plays Harry Haft, a real-life Polish survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp during the World War II. Haft was one of several notable Jewish boxers who were forced to box fellow inmates to survive, and his horrific story of survival probably feels familiar to you if you have ever watched “Triumph of the Spirit” (1989), where Willem Dafoe plays a real-life Greek Jewish boxer who was also pushed into such an impossible situation like that during that time.
The screenplay by Justin Juel Gillmer mainly focuses on the postwar period in Haft’s life. After the war was over, Haft moved to US along with his brother who also managed to survive thanks to him, and he has tried on a professional boxing career there during next several years, but things have not been going that well for him. Although he was promising at first, he has recently lost less than 6 times in low, and now it looks like he will have to retire sooner or later.
Nevertheless, Haft still wants to box more, and he really hopes to have a match with the current national champion for one personal reason. Before he was taken to Auschwitz, he was very close to a young girl in his hometown in Poland, and he wants her to learn of his survival via his big match with that champion – if she really survived as he has hoped for years.
For making that big match possible, Haft surely needs some extra publicity besides being a boxer who survived the Holocaust, and that is where a journalist named Emory Anderson (Peter Sarsgaard, who looks as suave and aloof as required) enters. Although talking about that grim period is the last thing he wants, Haft willingly tells almost everything to Anderson, and Anderson’s following article does draw more attention to Haft, though, not so surprisingly, some people are repulsed by what he did in the name of survival.
Bit by bit along the main narrative, a series of flashback scenes, which is shot in black and white film, show us what Haft suffered at the Auschwitz concentration camp. On another grueling day at the concentration camp, he happens to be noticed by an SS officer named Dietrich Schneider (Billy Magnussen) for his potential as a boxer, and, after some training, he is soon put into the ring to fight against an inmate. Whoever loses will be promptly killed, but, as Schneider sardonically points out at point, it is slightly better than being sent to a gas chamber at least.
As he keeps winning and surviving, Haft surely feels more disgusted and conflicted, but he has no choice from the beginning. He always has to depend on Schneider for his survival whenever he is not boxing, and Schneider shows Haft some generosity at times. He is cynical and rather perceptive about what is being cruelly committed by him and many other German people now, but that still does not stop him at all from having a sadistic fun and entertainment from forcing Haft into the ring, and Billy Magnussen’s effective acting does not let his supporting character turned into a merely monstrous caricature.
Meanwhile, the main narrative alternates between Haft’s training for his bit match and his accidental romantic relationship with an American Jewish lass named Miriam Wofsoniker (Vicky Krieps). You will be disappointed if you expect any exciting training montage, but the movie gives us instead several small but fine character moments between Foster and several dependable veteran actors including John Leguizamo and Danny DeVito, who shows here that he is still one of the most colorful character actors in Hollywood. In case of Foster and Krieps, they click well with each other as their characters tentatively approach closer to each other along the story, and Krieps is particularly good when her character comes to have a little serious conversation on God with Haft at one point later in the story.
Although that eventual big match of Haft is surely depicted with considerable intensity as expected, the movie goes further than that point, and that is where Foster’s performance becomes more crucial than before. In addition to constantly looking convincing in the two very different parts of the film, Foster deftly embodies his character’s guilt and trauma without any false note, and the rather somber final act is more poignant than expected as his character eventually arrives at the end of his long and difficult emotional journey with some peace of mind.
In conclusion, “The Survivor” is impressive in terms of storytelling and performance, and it is probably Levinson’s best work since his another notable HBO movie “You Don’t Know Jack” (2010). Although his prime period mainly represented by “Rain Man” (1988) and “Bugsy” (1991) may have already passed, he is still a good director nonetheless, and it is a shame that this very good film went straight to TV instead of being released in movie theaters.