A disjointed middleweight Holocaust movie about a disjointed heavyweight fighter, Barry Levinson’s “The Survivor” may be another title on the endless list of films that struggling to depict the atrocities of concentration camps, but it’s one of the few that would have been dramatically improved by not depicting them at all. Unequal parts “Raging Bull” and Peter Solan’s “The Boxer and Death” — better known by its needless American remake “The Triumph of the Spirit” — Levinson’s biopic tells the brutal story of a strapping Polish kid named Hertzko Haft (Ben Foster), who avoided the gas chambers of Jaworzno by sending dozens of other Jewish men there in his place.
By the time the Soviet Red Army swept through the area in 1945, Haft had won 76 of the life-or-death boxing matches staged for the Nazi guards’ amusement, and upon arriving in New York he naturally parlayed his gifts as a pugilist into something of a career. The war was over, and yet he kept fighting. On the one hand, Haft (then re-dubbed Harry) wanted to become famous enough that news of his feats might, in the unlikely event that she was also still alive, reach the girlfriend from whom he’d been separated by the Gestapo. On the other hand, he didn’t know what else to do with his fists. How do you ever lower your guard after something like the Holocaust? How could Haft find peace in a life that had been paid for with so much blood?
Given how uncommon it is to see a film that dares to answer those questions with any resolve, it’s not much of a surprise that “The Survivor” busies itself by asking them instead. The result is a well-acted and even better-intentioned slab of serious entertainment jumbled together from the usual sludge of melodramatic PTSD, my late grandfather’s accent, and detailed recreations of the Shoah that still feel like dress-up because they’re meant to dramatize the unfathomable (the ones here were shot on a Hungary soundstage complete with a 100-ton slag of coal imported from Poland).
Our first proper introduction to Haft comes in 1949, when Harry is a low-rent Coney Island boxer getting paid $30 a fight. His only assets are an enthusiastic coach (John Leguizamo in an underwritten role) and the morbid schtick of his billing as “The Pride of Poland.” Harry’s grim history is read over the loudspeaker before every match, so when the crowd yells at him to “go back to Auschwitz,” they mean it in the most literal terms. Alas, he agrees to their request, if only in his mind: Every punch he takes seems to trigger a black-and-white flashback to the ring where he received the brunt of his training, and also to Schnieder, the sniveling Nazi officer who gave it to him. Billy Magnussen endows the role with a Ralph Fiennes-worthy evil tempered by the actor’s inescapably modern air and central casting dialogue, which stretches a certain metaphor about anvils and hammers far beyond its breaking point.
Harry is convinced that his pre-war love Leah is still alive somewhere, and only overcomes his natural reluctance to reflect on the camps when a trustworthy New York journalist (Peter Sarsgaard, fitting a half-dollar coin into a part the size of a dime) promises to promote his story. Both Sarsgaard and Leguizamo’s characters hang around for the duration, but Justine Juel Gillmer’s busy script doesn’t give either of them much to do in its rush to pave the way for Harry’s catharsis. Only Danny DeVito, playing Rocky Marciano’s sympathetic cornerman, is able to rise above the rabble; his role is essentially to reconcile Harry’s nascent boxing career with the losses he suffered in Europe. “You can’t win,” he tells the boxer about his potential fight with Marciano, and about so many other things as well. “I’m just giving you a chance to lose with a little dignity.”
1949 Harry is quickly surrounded with a likable clutch of characters, a group topped off by Vicky Krieps’ headstrong widow Miriam, who works for the Displaced Persons Office and tries to soften Harry’s hopes of finding Leah (Krieps’ unfailingly honest performance doesn’t even stumble when she’s forced to shoehorn the word chutzpah into one of the script’s more awkward lines). But the frequent cutaways back to the camps make it impossible for the film to establish a solid present tense for Harry or unpack anything about his first years as an immigrant beyond his single-minded search for Leah.
It doesn’t help that the Jaworzno scenes are summoned by any number of contrived triggers — fireworks, flashbulbs, someone referring to Harry as an “animal” — shot with a handheld camera that fails to split the difference between trauma and memory, and framed with a broadness that rubs against a story desperate for more specificity. Blaring “Avinu Malkeinu” over the soundtrack as we’re introduced to the camp on Yom Kippur isn’t a poor choice unto itself, but it anticipates a film that skywrites Jewish history at the expense of a personal story that stands alone. Only when the Nazis shine a guard tower spotlight on the boxing ring below does the perversity of Harry’s situation cut through the accumulated noise of Holocaust film imagery.
To that end, the camp subplot becomes a case of terrible food and such small portions, as the ample time “The Survivor” spends at Jaworzno still isn’t enough to convey the sheer number of men Haft was forced to fight, or the numbing toll those bouts must have taken on him. In typical Hollywood style, his opponents are largely compressed into a single character who’s made into an ineffective symbol for Haft’s moral sacrifice.
Foster’s performance is ultimately the only thing that holds “The Survivor” together across its three parallel timelines. Invariably leaning all the way into the Jewish Jake LaMotta aspect of the role, the ultra-immersive “Leave No Trace” star lost 60 pounds for the Jaworzno flashbacks before gaining them all back and then some for the 1960s-set third act. Needless to say, Foster puts so much shtetl into every scene that his take on Harry risks seeming like an overcorrection, but incredible cosmetics work is always there to help the actor keep at least one foot on the ground; from convincing facial prosthetics to a hairpiece that channels just the right amount of mid-century waviness, Foster’s transformations feel rooted in personal history rather than performative showmanship.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this movie would have been stronger had the actor been allowed to spend more time at his fighting weight, and spared the awfulness of starving himself. While Levinson’s biopic is ostensibly about someone being forced to shadowbox the horrors of the Holocaust for the remainder of his adult life, too much of “The Survivor” is seduced back toward the same atrocities that its protagonist is desperate to escape. Too much of it is spent watching Haft fight his way out of a situation that left him no other choice. As a result, the film struggles to land any punches because it fails to understand something that Sidney Lumet’s similarly minded “The Pawnbroker” intuited so well: How a man comes by his demons is typically only as compelling as what he does about them.
“The Survivor” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.