Barry Levinson’s ‘The Survivor’ Is Horrible But Hopeful
Premiering at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, “The Survivor” is a film that has the quality of being a serious candidate for awards, if and when it comes out correctly. Barry Levinson’s biopic of Holocaust survivor boxer Harry Haft was completed just as the coronavirus pandemic struck, at a time when the big studios were simply not buying new movies and streaming sites. would have transmitted it to be too depressing. “The survivor” is deeply depressing, but it’s also a hell of a good movie with surprisingly moving hopeful moments amidst the horror.
Ben Foster, the Boston-born Jewish actor who starred in “Hell or High Water” and “Leave No Trace”, gives an incredible acting performance as Haft. Playing this complicated character for three decades, he lost 60 pounds for the concentration camp scenes and recovered everything for the professional boxing scenes in America. His Polish accent is compelling and it delves deep into Haft’s guilt, trauma and determination.
In Auschwitz, Haft faces a unique terrifying dilemma: Guard Dietrich Schneider (Billy Magnussen), sensing the ability to take advantage of Haft’s will to fight, offers him protection in exchange for boxing matches against other prisoners. . Losers in those fights would be shot in the head – a spell that Schneider and many Haft opponents themselves have called more humane than the gas chambers. It is a heavy moral dilemma, brutally portrayed. Watching the Yom Kippur scene during this year’s Days of Awe was an intense experience to say the least.
What made Haft so desperate to live that he was willing to help kill his fellow Jews to do so? His main motivation was to live to see his lover, Leah (Dar Zuzousky) again. It is that same desire that motivates him to aim high in the professional boxing world in America, hoping to become famous enough that she will see her name in the newspaper if she is still alive. In 1949, Haft was on a losing streak but managed to fight heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano.
Levinson keeps the American boxing scenes entertaining without losing sight of the brutality Haft endured and embraced. John Leguizamo is fun as the coach of Haft, Pepe, and Danny DeVito is even better as Charlie Goldman, Marciano’s Jewish coach, who can’t help but slyly help Haft himself. Vicky Krieps plays Miriam Wofsoniker, a woman who helps Haft on her quest to find her lost love while starting to fall in love on her own.
“The Survivor” will make you cry for sure, both for its moments of unbearable suffering and for its graces of hope. The pace could be tightened up in its final act, and the film sadly does the wrong thing to extend what would have been a perfect ending with an additional flashback scene that grows in the sap. The flaws, however, don’t prevent “The Survivor” from being one of the best films I’ve seen at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.