Movies centered around the Holocaust were given a renewed interest after the critical success of such films as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. So many of these movies focus on the heroism and noble suffering of one historical character. The Survivor is a more nuanced look at the life of one man, and the costs of survival.
The Survivor is a biographical drama about Auschwitz survivor Harry Haft. Haft was a Jewish boxer who survived his imprisonment in Auschwitz by boxing fellow prisoners for the amusement of Nazi prison guards. His opponents were fellow prisoners who were murdered instantly after losing the fight. He escaped an infamous death march from the Jaworzno concentration camp, and immigrated to the United States where he briefly continued his boxing career. The final fight of Haft’s professional boxing career was against boxing legend Rocky Marciano.
In reality, Haft claimed that he lost the fight against Marciano due to being threatened by the mafia. In The Survivor, the story is that Haft took this fight as a way to gain publicity to let his lost love that he survived the Holocaust. Although the movie’s storyline was undeniably compelling and led to many dramatic moments, the more likely scenario Haft described would no doubt also have led to many compelling moments in a movie, and it was an interesting choice to not explore these.
The Survivor is more along the lines of The Counterfeiters or Son of Saul, all movies taking place during the Holocaust that show a more human look at Holocaust survivors, rather than a valorizing of the brutality they experienced. These characters are far more complicated, and at times more difficult to sympathize with. These movies ultimately come to the conclusion that survival is survival, and those that most people would consider morally grey still never deserved to be subjected to the horrors of the Holocaust.
Ben Foster does an incredible job of portraying Haft’s humanity through the entire movie, and this is some of his best recent work. The gruff exterior has the undercurrent of a man who lost everything and is trying to live his life in the wake of the horrors and loss he’s experienced. Foster plays this so perfectly, and the strength of the movie really is in watching his journey.
Danny DeVito is also at his best playing Rocky Marciano’s trainer Charlie Goldman. Aside from the comic relief that DeVito does so well, he plays a character with a tremendous amount of heart. DeVito continues in the great tradition of the likes of Burgess Meredith, playing a trainer that brings love and support to a boxer trying to find his way. This was a perfect role for DeVito to showcase what he does best.
While the movie has undeniably compelling moments and centres around a heartbreaking story, the narrative sometimes gets lost within the movie itself. Moving between timelines and events is always a challenge, and the end result is ultimately a credit to director Barry Levinson. Through his career, Levinson has become a master storyteller, particularly examining the lives of men from brutal violence to subtle emotional explorations, and this movie was the best of this. This is also one of Levinson’s best movies in recent years, and it was satisfying for fans to see this return to form.
It’s worth noting that Harry Haft only told the story of his life, including his survival of the Holocaust to his son Alan in 2003. It speaks to how difficult these stories are for survivors to tell and how traumatizing it is to relive these experiences, even many years after the events have occured. Levinson handled the story as a whole with the sensitivity it was due.
The Survivor is ultimately an examination of the human spirit that compels the viewers to consider the true cost of survival against such horrors as the Holocaust. The movie serves as a reminder that these stories are more essential than ever to tell as we approach a time when those who survived the Holocaust will no longer be alive to tell us their stories themselves. If we want to make the mantra that came out of the Holocaust, “Never Again” a reality, work like this is essential.
The Survivor will debut on HBOMax on a date unknown at time of publication.