Flix at :48: Ben Foster takes the spotlight in 'The Survivor'
The Survivor is a serious biographical drama about the life of Harry Haft, a Polish Jew who entered a concentration camp in the 1940s of WWII at 16 years old and was forced into boxing matches with other imprisoned Jews for the Nazis' entertainment. After enduring inhumane treatment, surviving the war, and emigrating to New York City, Harry continues to box professionally in the U.S. with the hope his fighting celebrity in the 1960s will connect him with his lost love.
This film is adapted from the 2006 book, Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano written by Harry's son Alan Scott Haft. Although there's a lot of boxing content in the film, The Survivor wisely sidesteps that part in favor of focusing on Harry's psychological scars of grief, fear and guilt. The boxing in this film is not about the cool masculine power of one man's endurance but is instead a desperate outlet for a lonely man trying to process personal tragedies. Parts of the narrative could use a little nudge to keep the energy and focus more sustained. (An entire scene with Danny DeVito giving secret tips in the boxing ring feels extraneous and drawn out.) But overall, The Survivor is a well-packaged film moving gracefully between past and present and serving as an intimate spotlight on actor Ben Foster (Leave No Trace, 2018) in the titular role. His transformation is authentic and vulnerable. In the flashbacks, his head looks weathered and fragile, and in the post-war scenes it's block-like and calloused as if a life of violence, loss and suffering forced him into a clenched tube of scar tissue.
Hollywood films have no shortage of WWII or Holocaust stories, and that's part of the reason many moments of The Survivor are predictable. (When Harry meets a young secretary played by Vicky Krieps [Old, 2021] it's clear they will be husband and wife later on.) And at times it feels awfully tedious due to its limited emotional range of tenacious sadness, repressed anger, and wounded aloofness. Director Barry Levinson clearly knows how to get realistically emotional performances from his actors.
The all-star cast is not interesting here (or even necessary?) because Ben Foster's performance is what it's really all about. The Survivor is currently available for streaming on HBO Max.