TIFF 2021 Review: The Survivor

Written by Taylor Baker


Barry Levinson, director of Rain Man and Good Morning Vietnam, picks up the camera again to depict a biographical film entitled The Survivor. Which offers a look back at Harry Haft (played by a very game, and made up Ben Foster) a survivor of Auschwitz who entertained Nazis by boxing his fellow prisoners to survive. The supporting cast is rounded out by Vicky Krieps, Danny DeVito, Peter Sarsgaard, and John Leguizamo.

Harry’s original name is Hertzko, and at one point he asserts that it was America herself that gave him the name Harry. By 1933 Harry had been plucked by Officer Schneider (Billy Magnussen) to compete against other concentration camp prisoners in bare-knuckle boxing matches to the death. This Auschwitz timeline is constantly interplayed to the film, seamlessly woven in and out of the narrative proper set in the late 1940s where a desperate Harry cooks up a scheme to get his name in the headlines to find his love. In the hopes, she too survived the camps and is looking for him.

Levinson has no interest in deifying the boxing sequences, nor the broader violence sequences. He’s most interested in a conversation of what happened between Harry and the various players he meets along the way. Whether it’s Danny DeVito on a dock, or Paul Bates’ Louis Barclay talking to Harry in the middle of the night in a particularly enrapturing story about his Buffalo Soldier brother in World War 1. Who’d survived three days in a mud hole and came back home a shell of himself, eventually committing suicide. He delivers this retelling holding a bottle of sleeping pills. Trying to convince Harry’s restless soul to at least surrender to the night, if he won’t give ground anywhere else.

The largest and most brightly lit boxing sequence against Rocky (yes that Rocky) Marciano is well choreographed but shows at least half a dozen cleanly pulled punches that are hitting nothing but air alongside a crescendo post-hoc slamming punch sound effect. It’s almost an ode to an earlier time when that sort of thing was the norm. Like the book, it’s a world war two autobiography at bottom, the likes of which we used to be treated to every other year. It rings saccharine, at once incomplete and overdue.

Levinson still has the chops to shoot a surefire drama, but perhaps material that isn’t as personal would serve him best. The Survivor isn’t just over sentimental it’s overwrought. That doesn’t mean to say it’s unpleasant or unwatchable. But rather, that there’s more left on the bone than Levinson and team could get to on this budget. Which is no fault of Ben Foster. It’s a clunky heartfelt period piece that makes up for its wonkiness with a constant thread of forward momentum, respect for the past, and an underlying sense of gratitude. It remains to be seen if The Survivor becomes an awards contender as it surely would have in the 1990s but in an age of middling over glossed dramas reimagining the good ol’ days this is a welcome change of pace.

The Survivor was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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