In 1943, the now-legendary boxer Harry Haft competed in his first bout. Instead of an audience of cheering fans, he performed for a crowd of sadistic Nazis; instead of competing in an arena, his ring was a Polish concentration camp; rather than fighting another trained boxer, he threw punches at fellow Jewish prisoners until the blows killed them. Haft is one of the integral figures in the cruel and barbaric history of concentration camp boxing. Trained by an SS guard for his own entertainment, Haft was forced to compete in a grim total of 76 fights as a prisoner. But his story doesn’t end there. When he finally managed to escape the camp, Haft used his skills as a boxer to garner national attention by fighting legends such as Rocky Marciano, hopefully earning the notice of his lost—and presumed dead—love. The Survivor, directed by Barry Levinson from screenwriter Justine Juel Gillmer’s take on Harry Haft: Auschwitz Survivor, Challenger of Rocky Marciano, tells the athlete’s stranger-than-fiction story in flashback.
Haft’s tale of survival forms the basis for an engaging and thrilling film premise. The frustrating aspect of stories like this, though, is that sometimes the filmmakers adapting them lean too much on the strength of the source material, and ask it to do all of the legwork. Sadly, this is at times the case in The Survivor. The bulk of The Survivor takes place in 1949, with Harry (Ben Foster) in the throes of his professional boxing career. Scenes of Harry’s present consistently waltz around his past, not allowing the viewer to forget the atrocities that he suffered in the concentration camps. Naturally, the juxtaposition of past and present have the potential to serve as a powerful commentary on the inescapability of memory, but Levinson ultimately shoots himself in the foot. He boxes the flashback scenes into a frustratingly predictable formula: Each scene in the camp is cloaked in a wash of hazy, redundant black-and-white (there is no way a viewer wouldn’t know these scenes take place in the past) that’s distracting and inadvertently gives the scenes an unneeded melodramatic tone.
But this isn’t to say that the memory-based framing device doesn’t sometimes work. When Levinson leans into more subtle framing methods, the way that the timelines meld together is effortlessly powerful. As Harry walks up to the boxing arena after escaping, a shot of his feet matches with a similar shot from the camps as he partakes in a somber march. These mirroring shots remind us that this isn’t a film about boxing, but about trauma and loss. Moments like these remind of this fact, but The Survivor doesn’t always remember exactly what it wants to be.
Partway through, after Levinson tirelessly sets his protagonist up as a man whose one intention in life is to find his long-lost love, Harry starts to prepare for a match with Rocky (Anthony Molinari). Suddenly, The Survivor loses all sense of sentimentality and briefly becomes a hard-hitting boxing flick a la The Fighter or, well, Rocky. Not only is this tonally confusing, but The Survivor’s strong suit is its softer, more sentimental moments. And while the editing helps to tie together Harry’s life in a melancholy manner, the film’s emotional epicenter exists in its performances.
Despite the goofy stage makeup used to make him look like an old man, Foster brings a tenderness to Harry that unmistakably illustrates him as someone tortured by the prospect that he has to move on from a grisly past. Even in his most lively moments, Foster still gives Harry a furrowed brow, eyes flitting with nervousness and a harried, hunched demeanor. Unsurprisingly, Vicky Krieps continues to prove herself as one of modern Hollywood’s finest in her role as Miriam, a woman who helps reunite Jewish people with loved ones who are lost or presumed dead. And while her character isn’t afforded much depth (at a certain point she falls into the “stoic wife of a troubled man” stereotype), her clumsiness, soft breathy voice and bashful disposition afford her character with realism and likeability. Hell, even the stock persistent journalist is played wonderfully by Peter Sarsgaard, who puts a delicate, moving touch on the whole thing.
It’s tough to focus a film about a life of such intense scope and variation. In attempting to give The Survivor a more precise aim, Levinson falls into campy flashbacks and predictable dialogue. But for a story about humanity and the good and bad of people, the film is also satisfyingly character driven, which ends up being its saving grace; beautifully strange and nuanced performances give it the direction it needed from the start.
Director: Barry Levinson
Writers: Justine Juel Gillmer
Stars: Ben Foster, Vicky Krieps, Billy Magnussen, Peter Sarsgaard, John Leguizamo, Danny DeVito
Release Date: April 27, 202
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.