Harry Haft (Ben Foster) battled to survive Auschwitz literally. During his time in the concentration camps, a Nazi warden (Billy Magnussen) forced Haft to engage in boxing contests with other detainees.
The loser was shot and carried away, and the next competitor was introduced. Harry did not lose, surviving long enough to escape the concentration camps and later relocating to the United States to pursue his boxing career.
Emory Anderson (Peter Sarsgaard) wants to hear more about Harry’s story in The Survivor, and Harry responds, “Nothing is black and white. Cracks, the common ground between Jews and Nazis, are the sweet point of a true story.
It is a strange choice for a phrase in a film that has employed black-and-white flashbacks to depict the tragedies of Auschwitz, but which is not attempting to do so. It is a peculiar decision for Barry Levinson’s film to highlight the grey area that makes true stories interesting, then completely ignore that aspect of the story.
Instead, Justine Juel Gilmer’s The Survivor focuses on what it takes to survive another day, whether, through the horrors, Harry had to endure, the minor indignities that get him closer to his ambitions, or the compassion and love he chooses to offer that changes his life.
The majority of Gilmer’s screenplay concentrates on Harry’s post-war existence in New York, where he is a failing boxer looking for his lost love Leah.
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Harry decides that if he faces Rocky Marciano, his name will spread, and Leah may be able to locate him if she is still alive. In order to achieve this objective, he shares a portion of his narrative with Anderson and accepts the assistance of Miriam Wofsoniker (Vicky Krieps), whose mission it is to reconcile war-separated individuals.
Gilmer’s screenplay also returns to black-and-white Auschwitz to portray what Harry had to endure to escape the concentration camps, either through Harry relating portions of his narrative to others or through unexpected circumstances that transport Harry to his frightening past.
Beyond Harry’s flashbacks to Auschwitz, Gilmer builds The Survivor in bizarre ways, as the picture swings back and forth in Harry’s stay in America in illogical ways.
The Survivor, for instance, begins with a few seconds of Harry in Georgia in 1963, which implies nothing to the audience upon first viewing, before moving to New York in 1949.
The picture regularly leaps in a manner that is both superfluous and disturbing to the story’s progression. While The Survivor appears to be building up to the great confrontation between Harry and Rocky, the film subverts this expectation, causing the film’s last act to drag dramatically.
The Survivor can’t help but feel as if it’s going through the motions in describing Harry’s life that needs to be told, despite the fact that this is the segment when we can most clearly see how Harry’s past still profoundly affects his present.
If Gilmer’s screenplay wishes to toy with time, The Survivor may have benefited from devoting more screen time to Harry’s future while continuing to build toward his battle with Marciano.
Levinson also prevents the effective telling of Harry’s extraordinary tale. With films such as Rain Man, Bugsy, and Avalon, the Oscar-winning director understands what it takes to create a premium motion picture. Levinson has devoted most of the previous decade to biographical pieces such as Paterno, The Wizard of Lies, and You Don’t Know Jack.
Levinson hasn’t directed an Oscar-nominated film since 1997’s Wag the Dog, but his instincts to make a prestige film are back in The Survivor, complete with the repetitious and nuance-free approach of this genre that we’ve come to anticipate from decades of biopics.
According to the journalist played by Sarsgaard, it is the subtleties that make a narrative like this remarkable, but The Survivor lacks these instincts.
Nonetheless, Ben Foster’s outstanding portrayal brings Harry’s story to life. Foster has been a tremendously undervalued actor over the years, with appearances in Hell or High Water, The Messenger, and 3:10 to Yuma, to name a few, but his performance of Harry in The Survivor is full of nuance and depth that the majority of the cast lacks.
Foster does respect both Harry’s past and present, bringing to life the severity and savagery of the camp while also depicting the weight of his past as a dark shadow from which he cannot escape. Over the past decade, Levinson has collaborated with actors such as Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and Foster’s performance here firmly establishes him as a brilliant talent on par with these giants.
Magnussen does his best to represent the grey area of this story through his performance, but the screenplay once again struggles to address nuances with care. Danny DeVito has a few great scenes as Rocky’s trainer who decides to help Harry before their big bout, and Krieps has some nice moments with Harry as well, but regrettably, the film’s supporting characters lack much personality outside of Harry’s experiences.
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The Survivor has the best of intentions in conveying Harry Haft’s terrible narrative and the decades-long path of confronting his history and those he lost along the way, but the filmmaking choices utilized to do so hinder the story’s ability to captivate.
At moments, through Foster’s portrayal, The Survivor reveals glimpses of the film’s potential impact, particularly in the film’s third-act reunion, which hits all the right notes. In contrast, The Survivor too often retreads biographical tropes we’ve seen countless times before or makes choices that appear audacious but ultimately undermine Harry’s story.
Is the Survivor a Worthwhile Film?
The Survivor is a clumsy, sentimental period drama that compensates for its awkwardness with a steady forward movement, reverence for the past, and an underlying sense of appreciation. 18 November 2022 | Rating: 60/100 | Complete Review… Even Ben Foster’s sincere performance cannot save this formulaic biography.
Is the Survivor Based on a True Story?
The HBO Original Feature ‘The Survivor’ marks the return of Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson to HBO. Based on the extraordinary true story of Harry Haft, the film reunites award-winning actor Ben Foster with director Barry Levinson.
The Survivor Trailer