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‘The Survivor’ reckons with the aftermath of fighting for your life

May 2, 2022
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Telling stories about real people is a complicated business. Transitioning reality to the silver screen involves all manner of delicacy (assuming the filmmakers are interested in maintaining a clear and truthful relationship to that reality). And as the people portrayed become more complicated, the overall levels of complexity grow exponentially.

Harry Haft was a light heavyweight boxer who had a brief run as a pro in the late 1940s; his overall record was 13-8 and his most notable bout was his last, a fight with none other than Rocky Marciano himself. Looking at that snippet of a life, one might wonder why anyone would give this guy the biopic treatment.

But Harry Haft was a survivor of Auschwitz. A Polish Jew, Harry survived because he was willing to fight. Specifically, he fought against his fellow prisoners for the amusement of the Nazi officers … and for the right to live another day. It was that experience that landed him in the boxing ring after the war.

“The Survivor” – currently available on HBO Max – is Harry Haft’s story. Or rather, stories. Indeed, the film offers us a glimpse at Haft’s journey from all sides. We’re given an up-close look at the brutal calculus of self-preservation in the face of a relentlessly cruel and callous adversary. We’re also allowed to get a sense of the aftermath of those horrible calculations, of what it means to live after others have died. And we’re presented with the aftermath’s aftermath, a look at how difficult and even impossible it may be to move forward when bearing the weight of those choices.

Directed by Barry Levinson from a script by Justine Juell Gillmer (based on the work of Alan Scott Haft, Harry’s son), “The Survivor” is a powerful and surprisingly dense film, one that manages to pack a lot of punches (literal and figurative) into its 129 minutes. It is a well-crafted and powerful film, one anchored by an utterly transformative lead performance by Ben Foster; its large budget and high production values in many ways belie its challenging nature. It is an incredibly compelling viewing experience, even as many parts of it prove rather difficult to watch.

“The Survivor” plays out in three time periods, though not linearly. Our primary storyline is set in 1949. Harry Haft (Ben Foster) is a professional boxer whose promising start has faded thanks to a losing streak. Even his trainers Pepe (John Leguizamo) and Barclay (Paul Bates) have some doubts regarding his future. But Harry’s struggles are about more than what goes in on the ring.

We also see Harry in the mid-1940s as a prisoner at Auschwitz. When he sees his brother Peretz (Saro Emirze) in danger at the hands of a guard, Harry fights to protect him. The guard is on the verge of killing him when an officer named Schneider (Billy Magnussen) steps in and removes Harry from the scene. His plan? To train Harry as a boxer and make him fight other prisoners as a way to enhance Schneider’s profile (and his pocketbook). And now, Harry is literally fighting for his life.

In addition, we’re given occasional glimpses at an older Harry in the early 1960s, though any details beyond that would serve as spoilers, so suffice it to say, we spend time with an older Harry Haft as well.

In 1949, Harry is consumed by a desire to track down his former lover Leah, if only to learn if she survived the war as he did. He enlists the help of Miriam (Vicky Krieps), who works for an organization dedicated to helping survivors track down news of their loved ones. Desperate, Harry seeks a bout against Rocky Marciano; he enlists the help of journalist Emory Anderson (Peter Sarsgaard), hoping that by telling his story of the camps, he might be able to land the Marciano fight, which might in turn get his name into a newspaper where Leah might see it.

We move from time to time, with each era bearing its own distinctive look and style, from the black-and-white harshness of Haft’s time in the camps to the washed-out softness of the ‘60s.

At the center of the frame is Harry, whose demons are constantly threatening to leap from the shadows and consume him. He is constantly being thrust back into the terrors of the camps, even as he struggles to find a place for himself in the world. He torments himself with questions about why he lived when others died, agonizing over the idea that he himself should be dead. His fight for survival never stopped, even though its physical immediacy may have.

There’s plenty to talk about with “The Survivor,” but any conversation about this film has to start with Ben Foster. Foster, who may be one of Hollywood’s most underrated performers, gives a phenomenal performance as Harry Haft. Leaving aside the physical transformation, which was significant – Foster reportedly lost and then regained 60 pounds in the course of his journey – this is a transcendent turn. Foster’s gifts for subtlety are well-utilized, but he also has bombastic tendencies that are employed as well. We get a brutal physicality married with a reluctant vulnerability, a tough guy whose emotional state is anything but. Just a tour de force, a masterful performance.

The supporting cast is exceptional, with Krieps and Sarsgaard and Leguizamo and so many others (including an absolutely killer mid-film in-and-out from Danny DeVito). Special note should be made of Magnussen, whose performance as Schneider is unsettling and complex and wildly effective. Too often, we get two-dimensional cutouts surrounding our protagonist; instead, these people all feel fully realized, flaws and all.

The boxing scenes are bonecrunching in their viscerality, capturing a close-up combative energy that is reminiscent of some New Hollywood classics of the ‘70s. The production values are sky-high, evoking a constant and complex sense of place. And in the densely-packed dialogue, we’re given true insight into these characters and how they came to be.

“The Survivor” is undeniably difficult to watch at times, with myriad moments of viciousness and violence. But it is also a story of hope maintained in the face of hopelessness, of good pulled from the gaping maw of evil. It is the story of a man who fought to live, only to fight with the guilt of having fought to live. A hard watch, yes, but a worthwhile one.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 02 May 2022 07:45

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