Jewish actor gives first Oscar-level performance in Barry Levinson’s ‘The Survivor’

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Dan Buffa, Special For The Jewish Light

Harry Haft survived hell before he could survive a beating in the ring. As the punch-drunk boxer declares to a reporter (Peter Sarsgaard) with vivid acceptance after one of his fights, “I am the survivor of Auschwitz.” But it’s how he survived and the means by which he wrote his ticket home that will keep demons attached to his soul for life.

Played with a bulldog ferocity that never wavers in the 130-minute run time by Jewish actor Ben Foster, Haft is a tireless soul who wrestles with all forms of loss on a daily basis. Whether it was the love of his early life getting taken away by Nazis or his own family being killed by gas, Haft can’t get in bed with happiness. It’s only when he meets the resilient Miriam (the wonderful Vicky Krieps) in his search for the still missing Leah (the lost love) that Harry learns to feel something again.

Compelling direction by renowned Jewish director Barry Levinson, “The Survivor” is an authentically told story about the true cost of war–even if you get out alive. As Haft attempts to give his flailing boxing career one last hurrah by climbing into the ring with Rocky Marciano, he unspools tales from the concentration camp to Sarsgaard’s scribe. This is where the film derives much of its power and lasting effect on the viewer.

There’s no easy way to describe scenes in the camps. When Haft defends his friend by beating up a SS guard, a fellow Nazi (the malevolent Billy Magnussen) sees potential profit and recruits Harry for boxing matches. What was entertainment for the guards was brutal on Haft, who was forced to fight fellow Jewish prisoners. And whoever wasn’t standing, in the end, got a bullet. Levinson, Foster, and the director of photography never allow melodrama or a false note to creep into the Auschwitz footage. It has a “Schindler’s List” type effect when you watch it.

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The film is a tale of two stories, split into two phases in Haft’s life. The first covering his boxing days, and the second chronicling his time with Miriam. All the while, we are taken back to the camps for the modern-day tale to get a splash of potency. The movie doesn’t really pull its hooks out of the viewer for too long, avoiding the sugarcoating tendencies that Hollywood productions often go for. The Shoah Foundation allowed the filmmakers to use Haft’s testimony about the camps, and that’s what gives the film its authentic edge.

Let’s put it this way: “The Survivor” could have been made with half of the full measure Levinson and screenwriter Justine Juel Gillmer give it here, and the movie would have still been good. But it’s the dedication to detailing Haft’s life in honest detail and the first rate cast that makes it a more cohesive production.

Danny DeVito and John Leguizamo give extra layers and traits to boxing trainer supporting roles, but this is Foster’s film. He owns the Jewish hero spotlight and gives a multi-faceted performance that sticks around. Changing his appearance throughout the film from healthy post-camp weight to a muscled skeleton in the camps, the actor goes for broke, digging into the turmoil that never left Harry’s shadow for long. Carrying a sympathetic smile that endures and nailing the slow-burn speaking manner of Haft, Foster’s work is the first time in 2022 that I thought about Oscar potential for a lead actor.

He’s that good, and so is the film. The editing is sharp, and Hans Zimmer provides one of his most understated yet poignant scores in years. With all the WWII-centered movies being released in the past eight months-“Plan A” being the other standout-Levinson’s film stands above the rest. There isn’t a real quibble or nitpick with this movie, and that’s a rarity in covering the film industry.

Then again, Harry Haft was a rare human. He survived hell before he tried to survive Marciano. Celebrate him and the survivors of Auschwitz with one of the most honestly depicted movies in quite some time. It left a dent.