There is a great movie to be made about Hertzko (Harry) Haft, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz by fighting other concentration camp prisoners in what amounted to battles to the death. I dearly wish that Barry Levinson’s well-meaning, sincere, and well-made film The Survivor (airing now on HBOMAX) were that movie. It brings me no pleasure to say that The Survivor is simply not that film.
The film takes on Cinderella Man vibes as it tells the post-war story of Haft’s desperate effort to find his pre-war girlfriend, Leah. Harry (well played by Ben Foster) believes that, despite losing seven of his last nine fights, if he can get a shot against Rocky Marciano, he will become famous enough for Leah to find him. In an effort to get enough publicity for Marciano to notice him (he is crudely introduced at his bouts as “The Survivor of Auschwitz), Haft opens up about his life in the camp to a dogged reporter played by the fine actor, Peter Saarsgard. His ploy works insofar as it gets him into the ring with Marciano (if you’re aware of the Rock’s career record, you already know how the fight turned out). It’s instructive to remember that back in the days before cable news and the internet, finding someone halfway across the world was a tall damn order.
While this story itself is interesting enough, all of these post-war scenes play as far too sentimental: the over saturated cinematography, the too on-the-nose dialogue, and the nostalgic tone are problematic enough on their own when telling the story of a Holocaust survivor, but those stylistic choices are further exposed as faulty when compared to the stark flashbacks of Haft trying to stay alive in the camp.
The scenes at Auschwitz have everything the rest of the movie does not—they are harrowing and compelling, bringing to mind Spielberg’s Holocaust masterpiece (down to the stark black and white photography) Schindler’s List, and, remarkably, not paling in comparison. When Haft is taken, for lack of a better phrase, “under the wing” of an SS commander (a wicked Billy Magnussen) who decides to teach the hard-hitting Pole the finer points of boxing so that he can fight grueling battles to the death against his fellow Jewish prisoners, we are confronted with the visceral horror of the machinations of the Nazi death machine, and it is bracing.
We also see the shame Harry feels as he wins his first fight, with the surrounding Nazi crowd all but frothing from the mouth. The reward for the winner is a few extra rations and a few more days of life, but the loser receives a single bullet to the brain. His shame makes Harry want to pull away from such a degrading and humiliating spectacle, but when the same SS commander who plucked him out of a worker line for his own amusement asks him to think of the person he loves the most, and then asks him if it’s worth it to fight to have some chance to one day see that person again, Harry thinks of Leah. And so he fights.
The major trouble the film has is that the Auschwitz sequences are so much more compelling than the rest of the movie. Not only do the post-war sequences seem comparatively mild and old-fashioned, they also dominate the film. I’m not sure what the exact ratio works out to be, but I’m betting the flashbacks to Auschwitz comprise less than a third of the film. The effect of jumping back and forth from this artfully rendered depiction of the worst of humanity to the uber-conventional scenes post Holocaust is jarring and robs the film of momentum.
Not only is it jarring—the final product is actually just weird. I love both Cinderella Man and Schindler’s List, but to put it mildly, the idea to mash up their tones (whether a conscious choice or not), was a very, very bad one.
The shame of it all is how there for it Ben Foster was as Harry Haft. Foster has been an excellent actor for a long time (see Hell or High Water… right now, if you can), but the script of the post-war portion of the film constantly undermines him as an actor. The film hints at how damaged Haft is, but never takes any bold step that might risk him appearing unsympathetic. The Survivor doesn’t hurt as much as it should, and that is a near fatal mistake, because Haft’s PTSD often feels too much like an inconvenience (as opposed to nearly incapacitating, which it surely must have been).
Foster’s commitment to the role goes far beyond his learning Yiddish, mastering a Polish accent, or becoming adept at the sweet science—he also undergoes a physical transformation that is on the level of Tom Hanks in Cast Away or DeNiro in Raging Bull. Seeing the skeletal appearance of Foster at Auschwitz versus the well-fed and healthy physique of his character in the post-war years is a testament to how deep Foster was willing to dig for the role.
I only wish that the filmmakers had been willing to dig so deep themselves. Perhaps Barry Levinson was simply the wrong person to direct The Survivor. During his decade-long heyday, Levinson made some wonderful films; starting with Diner in 1982 and ending with 1991’s Bugsy, Levinson was one of the finest filmmakers working. But his stock and trade, a sort of old-fashioned sentimentality (often married to a sense of nostalgia) is all wrong for this film. Levinson is the director of Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man, and Avalon. Only once in his career did he create a truly cut-to-the-bone film: his vicious political satire from 1997, Wag The Dog.
Aside from that one outlier, Levinson has never been a filmmaker who was willing to truly go to the dark places and stay there. That’s what this film required—a director willing to not only stare into the abyss, but to dive into it.
That’s not to say that The Survivor is a bad film. Levinson is too good a craftsman, and so many members of the cast are able to elevate the post-war portions of the script above what its rather run-of-the-mill writing deserves. There are times the film comes close to embracing the darkness at the center of its story, but it always pulls back to a safer place. That might make the audience feel better, but it does not make the film better.
I’ve always thought that the movies that really disappoint you are not the truly bad ones—instead, it’s the ones that aim for greatness and fall short of it. The Survivor wants to be great, but settles for solid, competent, and respectable. And for this subject, that’s just not enough. Not nearly.
Your heart should break at the end of this film, and it merely bends.