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Review: The Survivor (2022)

The Survivor (2022)

Directed by: Barry Levinson

Premise: Based on true events. Jewish-American immigrant Harry Haft (Ben Foster) was imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp where he fought fellow prisoners for the guard’s amusement. After the war, Haft makes a living as a boxer and searches for the woman he loved.

What Works: Filmmaker Barry Levinson has had an irregular career. He’s made feature films as well as documentaries and some of them have been great, namely Good Morning, Vietnam and Avalon, while others have been terrible. But in recent years Levinson has pushed himself stylistically and produced a few of the best movies of his career including Paterno and The Bay. Levinson’s The Survivor looks unlike anything else that he’s made. The moviemakers use color and film stock in creative ways that delineate past and present and communicate the emotional meaning of the scene. The Survivor is quite violent but it also possesses a nuance and sense of humanity and trauma that are beyond much of Levinson’s other directorial efforts. The narrative brings together different storytelling genres including the war film, an immigrant narrative, and the boxing movie, and the different elements come together effectively with the strengths and motifs of each genre complementing one another. The Survivor dramatizes the life of Harry Haft, a Holocaust survivor who became a professional fighter. The nonlinear narrative structure juxtaposes the past and present in ways that connect Haft’s wartime experiences with his later life and creates a vivid impression of the way he was haunted by trauma. Nearly thirty years after Schindler’s List, Holocaust dramas are no longer a novelty but The Survivor finds a unique approach to the material by focusing on complex issues of morality and identity. While in the camp, Haft fought fellow prisoners knowing that the loser would be executed and when his story is published in the newspaper, Haft’s relationship to his fellow Jews becomes complicated. Haft also has a tense relationship with his faith and the movie charts how he achieved some reconciliation between the realities of evil and notions of good. This is not only a story of physical survival but also psychological and spiritual survival and everything comes together effectively. 

What Doesn’t: The weakest element of The Survivor is the lost love subplot. Actor Ben Foster does a good job selling Harry Haft’s romantic longing. He’s hanging onto who he was before the war only to ultimately realize that going backward is not an option. However, we don’t get much information about this woman. She remains a vague memory and the possibility of Haft reuniting with her never has a concrete meaning.

DVD extras: On HBO Max

Bottom Line: The Survivor is an exceptional drama. The filmmakers turn Harry Haft’s life into an excruciating tale of trauma and recovery and it’s a thoughtful picture about what it means to survive.

Episode: #900 (May 8, 2022)