Film Review – The Survivor
On its surface, The Survivor (2021) looks like another underdog story about a boxer trying to make a name for themselves. In reality, it is a much deeper and profound examination of trauma, guilt, and humanity in the face of unspeakable evil. Director Barry Levinson and writer Justine Juel Gillmer (adapting Alan Scott Haft’s book) have crafted something special – a film that looks like a traditional biopic but operates with more finesse and intelligence. They go beyond the major events of a person’s life to peer into their very being, digging beneath the granite and steel to find a beating heart. This is one of the year’s biggest surprises.
At the center is Harry Haft (Ben Foster), a Polish Jew who survived the concentration camps of WWII and is making his way as a professional boxer. But this is only a miniscule part of who Harry is. We learn that he stayed alive by participating in fights for the amusement of Nazi officers. One of them – Schneider (Billy Magnussen) – takes Harry under his wing to exploit him. We can only imagine the kind of strain that put Harry under, having to fight other prisoners to the death. The fact that he transferred that skill to the boxing ring acts as a constant reminder of the pain he went through. Yet Harry pushes forward, hustling to secure a fight with the legendary Rocky Marciano (Anthony Molinari) in hopes that the publicity will reunite him with his lost love (Dar Zuzovsky).
The writing and direction constantly move in unique ways. Although the end can be easily surmised, the journey to get there feels unpredictable. When journalist Emory Anderson (Peter Sarsgaard) approaches Harry to discuss his life, we assume that this will be one of those tales where the protagonist recalls his past in flashback, but it doesn’t work out that way. When Harry meets Miriam (Vicky Krieps) – whose office helps survivors reconnect with their families – we believe Harry is one step closer to finding the person he’s been searching for. Yet, the story takes a different turn, with Miriam playing a much larger role than Harry could have guessed. Even the big fight with Marciano unfolds unexpectedly. Boxing movies have had a set blueprint dating even before Rocky (1976), but The Survivor is not that kind of movie.
In terms of tone and aesthetics, this feels more akin to Raging Bull (1980). From the period clothing, the hyper-realism of the fight scenes, to Harry’s battle with his own faith, this encompasses many visual parallels to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. When Harry sits alone in the locker room in quiet contemplation, or when he amps himself up in front of a mirror, the rhythms match those of Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta. This correlation is further solidified with Ben Foster’s searing, incredible acting. He delivers a career-best performance here, inhabiting Harry both physically and psychologically. Not only does he transform his body – from the emaciated prisoner to the muscular fighter to the older man – he also exudes the anguish and confusion of survivor’s guilt. Why did he survive when so many of his people perished? Does he deserve to live knowing that he fought against other Jews? Foster has carved a career of great character work, and with this role he utilizes every inch of his face and body. When he asks Miriam why God would allow the Holocaust to happen, notice the subtle expressions of his face – it’s as if he is barely managing to get the words out.
Foster’s work is joined by excellent supporting players. They all make the most of their opportunities, even when some are given limited screen time. John Leguizamo and Paul Bates appear as Harry’s trainers and manage to make impressions out of their natural charisma. Danny DeVito plays Marciano’s trainer and imparts words of wisdom to Harry even though he works for the opposite side. Billy Magnussen’s Officer Schneider is a wormy and weaselly narcissist, whose actions are less about the Nazi cause as it is his own self-interest. Rising above all is Vicky Krieps. Miriam is just as important to the story as Harry, and Krieps answers the call with moving efficiency. She employs many of the same qualities she had in Phantom Thread (2017), creating Miriam as a counterbalance to Harry. Where his life starts falling apart, she is the steady hand. She forces Harry to confront and deal with his demons before he falls into the abyss.
Douglas Crise’s editing arranges scenes with remarkable flow and cohesion. We jump between Harry’s time in the camps, to his days as a fighter, to old age in repeating fashion. This is not executed abstractly, but like a cascade of memories crystalized in Harry’s brain. By doing so, Crise draws the lines between Harry’s experiences and how they weigh on his shoulders. The cinematography (George Steel) isolates the camp scenes in stark black and white, creating a documentary-like effect. The strength of the editing and visuals (along with Levinson’s direction) is exemplified in how images are juxtaposed together. Fourth of July fireworks are placed next to bombs dropping down on the camp. Shots of Harry’s feet as he walks toward the ring is matched with shots of prisoner’s feet marching like cattle. A single shot of a peephole will spark an intense PTSD reaction. The past and the present are the same for Harry. He may have found a way to escape death, but part of him will always remain back in the camp.
The best biopics don’t just tell you what a person did, they tell you who that person was. The Survivor does just that. Levinson and his team have made a great movie. It puts us side by side with Harry and asks us to see the world through his eyes. It paints him with heartbreak, unanswered questions, fears, hopes and dreams. By the end, we get a full view of his very soul.