Barry Levinson is 79, so it doesn’t seem much of a leap to say that he made “The Survivor,” a true story of the Holocaust, as a late-career reckoning. The central character, Harry Haft, played by the remarkable Ben Foster, is a Polish Jew who gets sent to Auschwitz in 1943, where he sees the lowest circle of the inferno of the death camps. But he also becomes a boxer, sparring with other prisoners for the entertainment of the Nazis, and this allows him not to perish. What Harry does makes him, in effect, a cousin to the Sonderkommandos, the work units comprised of death-camp prisoners whose lives were extended because they did the grisly work of disposing of gas-chamber victims. “The Survivor” confronts the question of whether Harry was making a deal with the devil. (Actually, there’s no doubt that he was. The real question is: Was it a deal that God could forgive?) But since Harry is a fighter, and a good one, in movie terms he also can’t help but look heroic — like a strongman who fought back against the Nazis, and fought back against fate.
“The Survivor” is a Holocaust drama, a boxing movie, a character study, and a meditation on guilt. The pieces don’t always mesh, and there are patchy and prosaic moments, but this is still Levinson’s strongest work in years. You feel the fervor of his commitment. It’s a tougher film than you expect — it maintains the integrity of its journey — and Foster’s simmering performance, at once athletic and anguished, turns Harry into something more ambiguous than a plaster Jewish saint who knows how to use his fists. He’s a pensive bruiser trying to fight his way out of purgatory.
Half the film is set in Auschwitz (shot in black-and-white), and though Levinson stops short of making us squirm at the horror the way Spielberg did in “Schindler’s List” or Tim Blake Nelson did in “The Grey Zone,” he visualizes the death camp as an authentic hellscape: the charred embers in the air, the emaciated corpses, the whole depravity of annihilation.
When Harry, trying to protect a fellow prisoner, reveals his skill at fisticuffs by attacking a Nazi guard, he’s noticed by Schneider, a young Nazi officer (played with stunning finesse by Billy Magnussen) who has the kind of “intellectual curiosity” about Jews that makes him a genocidal bully with a streak of complication. Harry becomes his fighter, on some level his partner, and also his servant/pet. The bare-knuckle scenes have a blood-splattering brutality that sears the viewer. Foster, bald and emaciated but all sinew, shows you that for Harry this fighting is a kind of madness. But it’s the lifeline he’s been given, and he’s compelled to embrace it.
“The Survivor” cuts back and forth between Harry’s time at Auschwitz and his experiences after the war (shot in dark saturated ’80s-style color), beginning in 1949, after he has landed in Brighton Beach, New York, where he becomes a local prizefighter. Foster, filled out in these scenes, with a fleshier face (he looks a lot like De Niro in the ’40s scenes of “Raging Bull”), with thick wavy hair and a Yiddish accent, makes him a self-enclosed man who has the surly blankness of certain Holocaust survivors, but Foster is too good an actor to fall into the trap of making Harry so buttoned-up that he becomes uninteresting. Harry says, right up front, who he is; he has a way of tearing through his feelings. In the boxing ring, he’s introduced as “the pride of Poland, the survivor of Auschwitz,”
The state-of-mind of a Holocaust survivor is a difficult thing to ask an audience to enter; I can’t think of many movies that have done it justice. “The Survivor” has a somewhat unwieldy structure, but as scripted by Justine Juel Gilmerit it keeps adding layers, trying to intensify — and solve — the mystery of Harry. The movie is less interested in crafting facile moral judgments about what people did to survive than in weighing what those choices did to their minds and souls. Foster has a great monologue in which Harry relates the story of a man in Auschwitz taking another man’s cap to pass an inspection. It becomes a twisty parable of the ambiguity of survival.
Just when we think we’ve got Harry nailed, something else will be eating away at him. As Foster plays Harry, his guilt and anger and loss are there, but so are his hope, his boldness, his charred love of life — and, most of all, the instinctive need to keep all of that hidden. When WWII was heating up, Harry lost the love of his life, a young woman named Leah (we see them in flashback, and see her taken off to the camps), and he’s possessed by the idea that she’s still alive. When he announces that he intends to fight Rocky Marciano, who is working his way toward the world heavyweight title, the motivation behind this farfetched dream is for Harry to get his name in the headlines. That’s how Leah, wherever she is, will know he’s alive.
Harry Haft really did fight Rocky Marciano (he lasted three rounds), and a lesser movie might have made the Marciano bout into its climax. As Levinson stages it, with Danny DeVito as Marciano’s Jewish manager, who out of tribal loyalty (“It’s the sad history of our people. We’re always the fuckin’ punching bag”) secretly trains Harry for a couple of days, the bout makes for a violently dramatic scene, but for Harry it’s just a way station. Vicky Krieps, as Miriam, the woman Harry marries, has a gossamer surface and something harder beneath: a compulsion to stand up to Harry’s bullheadedness about his own pain. In her way, she’s just as bullheaded; that’s why she sticks with him. At the end, seated on the beach, Harry tells her a joke — a Jewish joke — that’s actually funny. It’s not just the two of them who crack up; so does the audience. “The Survivor” is a Holocaust movie that’s fresh enough to make you laugh between the tears, the gasps of terror, the long road out of the inferno.