A Holocaust film that not only acknowledges moral ambiguity but is completely built around it, Barry Levinson’s The Survivor is the story of a Jew who, in order not to be killed himself, had to beat other Jews to death for the amusement of German officers. Playing the real-life boxer Harry Haft, whose story was told in a book by his son Alan, Ben Foster goes through more than one striking transformation here, changing body and soul while neither shying away from nor overdramatizing the uglier aspects of the man’s life.
An unconventionally structured screenplay by Justine Juel Gillmer downplays some of the plot elements a more commercial film would exploit, but nevertheless delivers enough emotional resolution to satisfy mainstream audiences. Though the distinction between big- and small-screen work (where Levinson has a fruitful HBO collaboration) grows increasingly irrelevant, this is probably the best film the director has made for cinemas in the nearly quarter-century since Wag the Dog.
An affecting look at a nearly unresolvable moral dilemma.
We meet Foster’s Harry Haft (born Hertzko Haft) after the war, as he’s struggling to get a boxing career going in America. He’s touted ringside as “the pride of Poland and the survivor of Auschwitz!,” a tag that naturally raises questions from the press, most of which he dodges. “Nobody wants to hear the truth about he camps,” he says; Harry’s brother Peretz (Saro Emirze) is even more insistent, reminding him that his story in particular should never be told.
But when a reporter (Peter Sarsgaard) persists, Harry decides that getting his name in the papers is his only hope — not to advance his career, but to attract the notice of Leah (Dar Zuzovsky), the girl he loved before the war separated them. He’s been looking for her ever since, and though he knows everyone else he loved is dead, his heart tells him she’s still out there, somewhere. (That belief causes problems with local organizations working to connect refugees, whose employees don’t appreciate his constant hounding. Only Miriam, an aid worker played with soft-spoken empathy by Vicky Krieps, forgives his impatience, and over time she befriends him.)
Flashbacks in high-contrast black-and-white show us the story Harry decides to tell, and then some: When he came violently to the rescue of his friend Jean (Laurent Papot) in the camps, pummeling a guard who threatened him, Harry attracted the notice of an officer named Schneider (Billy Magnussen). Schneider made a project of him, feeding the emaciated man (that’s real, shocking weight loss on Foster, no Marvel CGI) and staging fights as a diversion for other officers. Harry is horrified to learn that these are last-man-standing bouts in which the loser will be executed. But faced with a them-or-me choice, he chooses to live. Levinson lingers on shots of fellow prisoners who watch his fights in horror, then follows him as he leaves the ring and struggles to reenter ordinary camp life.
Back in the present day, the publication of Harry’s story earns him some very nasty looks from other Jews. But he’s less abused than you might expect, perhaps because many of Harry’s neighbors know that they, too, were forced to make terrible choices to survive.
An actual sports film might make this guilt the psychological obstacle to eventual triumph in the ring. But here, though we have some of the trappings of a regular boxing picture — including colorful trainers played by Danny DeVito and John Leguizamo — that kind of arc isn’t being drawn. The climax of Harry’s boxing career, a brutal bout with future champ Rocky Marciano, occurs smack in the middle of the film. Harry will carry his trauma long past the end of his fighting career, in nightmares and PTSD flashes that contaminate the relationships he tries to build in his new homeland. Foster wrestles with several flavors of grief and guilt here, burying them under layers of time, mixing them with the protective love Harry feels for son Alan, who’ll grow up to write this story.
So The Survivor isn’t quite a sports drama, and it’s not a sweeping romantic saga either: Without giving anything away about Harry’s search for Leah, it can be said that The Survivor does not offer the emotional drive or the payoff of a war-themed date movie. The film also barely cares about the details of Harry’s escape from the Nazis — which, if Wikipedia’s to be trusted, offer plenty of drama. The movie’s heart really does lie in the moral questions it raises, which are made thornier the more we watch the young Harry interact with the Nazi who treats him like a pet. Magnussen is devilishly rational, smiling as Schneider reminds Harry he’s the only thing keeping him from the gas chamber.
One drunken evening, Schneider explains that he bears no animosity toward Jews, and that all this “unpleasantness” (casually gesturing to the death camp behind him) is a necessary means to an end. Anti-Jewish propaganda is “for simple minds,” he explains, who must be herded by those building a great nation — and every great nation has to destroy somebody. He goes on, sounding more and more like a Republican senator explaining off the record why he embraces Trumpism. One can only be the hammer or the anvil, Schneider argues — not realizing that the world is not a blacksmith shop, and it’s possible to live, and even thrive, without destroying others. Schneider entered the blacksmith shop enthusiastically; Harry didn’t have a choice.