The Survivor Synopsis: After World War II, Harry Haft (Ben Foster) is a boxer who fought against his peers in concentration camps. Haunted by memories, he tries to use fighting legends as a way to find his love.
The generational pain lingering in the aftermath of the Holocaust remains a vital subject for artistic expression. Acclaimed efforts like Schindler’s List and the Son of Saul examine the era with tact and brutal honesty, often utilizing their visceral craft in a harrowing education on the era’s haunting impacts. Potryaying the Holocaust also comes with its own set of difficulties for filmmakers. A few noble failed endeavors highlight how the era’s nuances require more than just good intentions on the filmmakers’ part.
With The Survivor, 80’s filmmaking stalwart Barry Levinson focuses on the resonant true story of Harry Haft. As a man forced into life-or-death boxing matches inside the concentration camps, Haft’s story emanates the stark trauma and survivor’s guilt facing a generation exposed to inhumane practices. Thankfully, The Survivor explores Haft and his fighting spirit with an empathetic eye.
Levinson, a filmmaker who has endured a slew of middling efforts after his filmmaking heyday, recaptures his artistic voice in his depictions of Haft. Levinson and Screenwriter Justine Juel Gillmer wisely merge Haft’s inhumane existence in the camps alongside his aftermath as a boxer desperate to find his lost love. The cojoined time periods reinforce the untapped trauma left in the wake of Haft’s cursed role as a purveyor of death and destruction at the Nazi’s hands – with each flashback assaulting viewers in the same uncontrolled manner they confront Haft.
As a filmmaker from a different era, Levinson’s traditionalist and restrained filmmaking choices serve as a fitting complement to his material. His balance of visceral horrors and the imaginative fears of the unknown convey Haft and his existence with technical aplomb. Levinson radiates respect for his subject and his struggles – he never overworks his craft to a point where the ample suffering feels exploitative. I also give Levinson and Gillmer credit for elevating some of the biopic’s most tired cliches. The duo’s usage of journalist interviews as a lead-in to flashbacks and inspirational speeches earn a more meaningful place in The Survivor than in more tangential efforts.
The Survivor stands out most as a reflection star Ben Foster’s commanding talents. Foster remains one of the industry’s most underappreciated talents, with understated work in The Messenger and Leave No Trace showcasing an unbridled dedication to his craft. As Haft, Foster confronts PTSD and the character’s suppressed emotions through his detailed eye for humanity. It’s a credit to Foster that not a single character revelation feels false. The actor mines expressive detail in every frame as Haft endures an emotionally restrained journey for recovery.
Despite its resonance, The Survivor does succumb to some unevenness. The expressive details of the film’s first half are less apparent in the latter half as Gillmer attempts to incorporate Haft’s complicated healing process. Between Hary’s relationship with his kind-hearted wife Miriam and searching for his childhood love, the second half does not breathe enough with its characters. Perhaps a mini-series approach could have rendered even more layers upon The Survivor’s strong foundation.
Unevenness aside, The Survivor hooked me from start to finish. Haft’s process of suffering and recovery reflects the light at the end of the tunnel in humanity’s endurance of trauma.
The Survivor is now playing on HBO Max.
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