There are countless stories that have come out of The Holocaust through the years that embody the spirit of good triumphing over evil. The newest such example is “The Survivor”, based on the memories of concentration camp survivor Harry Haft. Haft was an amateur boxer who fought against other camp prisoners in order to survive against all odds. Post-war and feeling the trauma of his experiences, he challenges boxing legends like Rocky Marciano in order to bring a sense of normalcy to his new life in America.
Directed by Barry Levinson (“The Natural” and “Rain Man”), the WWII Poland scenes are cloaked in black-and-white, with Foster’s Haft appearing emaciated but strong. Billy Magnussen is the perfect looking Nazi, Dietrich Schneider, a maniacal SS officer responsible for arranging boxing matches between concentration camp prisoners, often to the death. But by the end of the first act, it is obvious how disjointed this film feels. Unfortunately, we don’t know enough about the characters in the camp, which makes it difficult to understand their pain. Furthermore, Foster’s a 41-year-old actor playing a 20-year-old real survivor, and despite the Nicole Kidman-inspired prosthetic nose and makeup work, Foster is incapable of aging backwards. However, he is genuinely capable of taking on Haft’s struggles, giving an outstanding performance in an otherwise bland film.
“The Survivor” is one part Holocaust epic, one part sports movie, with a splash of romance and psychological torture. Every time the characters say the word “survivor”, which is uttered in almost every present-day scene, I can’t help but think about the episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where a a contestant from the TV show “Survivor” and a Holocaust survivor get into a fight during a dinner party. At least in that depiction, there was less blood and a bit of humor. When we do finally have some funny moments from an impressive supporting cast that includes Danny DeVito, Peter Sarsgaard, Vicky Krieps, and John Leguizamo, it is very few and far between.
Survival and the PTSD that surrounds tortuous events is difficult to execute on film. It was a subject that wasn’t discussed back then, but we now have endless stories full of nightmares, anger, and secrets from a time when all hope was lost. “The Survivor” showcases true survivor’s guilt from start to finish, with anguish exhibited within every wrinkle of Haft’s bruised face and torso. Haft had to make choices during his boxing days in the camp that would affect his ability to survive, as well as his ability to grieve his own self-destruction. He allows this grief to command a stranglehold on his life, which begs the question: What’s the point of being a survivor if you aren’t truly going to live?
While Levinson’s direction is a little muddled to say the least, “The Survivor” is still an important film to watch and reflect upon. At one point in the present-day, Haft accidentally eats ham, which is forbidden for Jewish people on a kosher diet. He exclaims, “God doesn’t pay that much attention to me anyway.” Maybe this week as Israel commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day, do yourself a favor and pay attention to “The Survivor”, currently available on HBO Max.
Ticket rating: 🎟🎟🎟1/2