On the surface, the title for Barry Levinson’s The Survivor seems to be derived from Harry Haft’s title as “The Survivor of Auschwitz,” but on a much deeper level, it is because his survival is marred by survivor’s guilt.
Ben Foster Gives a Knockout Performance in The Survivor, a Brutal and Sobering Film
In the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust, Harry Haft (Ben Foster) makes a name for himself as an up-and-coming boxer in New York City, but the origins of that skill comes from his harrowing experience in the Nazi concentration camps where he was forced to perform in grim gladiatorial brawls for the entertainment of the Nazis.
Rather than simply telling us what happened to Haft, Levinson explores the grotesque and traumatizing experience through a series of black-and-white flashbacks. In these flashbacks, the smarmy and manipulative Nazi Dietrich Schneider (Billy Magnussen) takes Haft under his wing after witnessing him brawl with an officer. He weaponizes his strength, training him as a boxer, for the benefit of the Nazis, orchestrating death matches between him and other Jewish prisoners in the concentration camps
Haft kept the truth about how he survived a secret, fearing that he would be ostracized by his community due to what he was forced to do to survive. However, in his continued effort to locate his childhood sweetheart, he goes to the press with his story and it is printed in the paper. As expected, no one in the Jewish community is thrilled with what Haft did in the camps.
Foster disappears into the role of Harry Haft and part of this is due to his extreme weight gain and loss he underwent for the film. He is emaciated and sickly looking in the flashbacks, healthy and boxer-esq in the “present,” and in scenes that depict Haft later in life Foster is heavier set and convincingly middle-aged.
While there is a large catalog of films that focus on the Holocaust and those that survived, The Survivor has a distinctly reverential and sobering quality to it. As much as it may be a film about boxing, the real heart and soul of this film is a story about a man trying to fight his way through survivor’s guilt without boxing gloves. Foster gives his best performance to date, carrying the weight of enormous grief through subtle physicality and far-away looks. In the moments where the black-and-white memories start to come back to him, Foster’s shift in demeanor evokes visceral emotions.
Additionally, I was thrilled to learn that Foster is, in fact, Jewish. Oftentimes, this particular type of film is a nomination gateway for actors who are entirely disconnected from the tragedies depicted. A decade ago, I am confident that a Christian Bale-type would have been cast to bring Harry Haft to life.
The Survivor may not make audiences weep like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or The Pianist, but it strikes at the heart of the very complicated emotions that Haft endured. He survived, while others did not and he had to live with the blood that had been forced onto his hands.
The Survivor had its world premiere this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. A release date has not yet been set.
Check out our full coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Maggie Lovitt is the Managing Editor of Entertainment at Wealth of Geeks where she covers her favorite topics: Star Wars and pop culture nerdery. She is also a freelance writer and News Editor at Collider. She has had bylines at Inverse, Polygon, and Dorkside of the Force. She is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association.
When she is not covering entertainment news, she can be found on one of her numerous podcasts or on her YouTube channel. In her free time, she is also a novelist, screenwriter, actor, and member of the Screen Actors Guild.