The Survivor – Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review

by Jordan King

Approximately six million Jewish people lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis during the atrocities of the Holocaust in World War Two. 965,000 of these deaths occurred at Auschwitz, Poland, and of those 965,000 Jewish people killed, 865,000 were sent to the gas chambers on arrival. That leaves 100,000 Jewish people whose deaths came in some cases days after their arrival, some may have had weeks, or even months of torture and unimaginable hardship to ensure before their death.

At Jaworzno, one of Auschwitz’ subcamps, we now know that 76 people’s lives were lost – indirectly – at the hands of Hertzko Haft. Born in Bełchatów, Poland in July, 1925, Haft – a Jew – found himself in Nazi slave labour camps from the tender age of 17. By his 18th birthday, he had been groomed by an SS overseer who’d noted his stature and brawn into boxing his fellow Jews for the entertainment of gambling military personnel. The terms of the fights were simple – you win, you live and you fight again; you lose, you die. By the time Haft escaped one of the Nazis’ death marches in April 1945, killing a German soldier and stealing his uniform to survive, he had won 76 fights and condemned 76 of his own people to death. Why? Because what is there for a man to do when all else has been torn from him but to survive? And because to the Nazis, killing the Jews wasn’t enough – they wanted humiliation, dehumanisation, to pit victims against victims to create monsters in their play at being God.

And yet, Hertzko Haft, having seen all that he had seen and having done what he had to to escape the hell of the Shoah, did survive. He outlived the Nazi regime. He was a professional boxer for a while. He lived until 2007, and his son Alan Scott wrote his story. And from that story has sprung The Survivor, director Barry Levinson’s earnest and stylish if occasionally confused and unfocused dramatisation of Hertzko Haft’s experiences.

Starring a both literally and figuratively transformative Ben Foster (he lost 60lbs to play a young, starved Haft in the Auschwitz scenes, and gained it back and then some for the 60s set section of the film), Levinson’s account of the life and times of Haft is told in a Matryoshka style nest of narratives.

The film begins in 1949, where Haft is trying to carve out a career as a professional boxer, earning $30 a fight and gunning for prizefighter Rocky Marciano, who he hopes may provide the publicity key to reacquainting with a lost love from before the war. While Haft trains with a spry but criminally underused John Leguizamo, taking tips also from Danny DeVito, who plays Rocky Marciano’s chutzpah heavy yet deeply human cornerman, you get the sense from Foster’s serrated stance and demeanour that his greatest fight remains the one he wages with guilt and shame about what he had to do to get to where he is.

When Haft encounters Peter Sarsgard’s doggedly determined New York reporter Emory Anderson, keen to probe the up-and-coming boxer for details of his experiences in Jaworzno in exchange for a guarantee of his story being given the best possible chance to reach his lover, the door to his past swings wide open. DP George Steel effortlessly shifts from the warm hues of late 40s America to the stark monochromatic nightmare of Haft’s past in Auschwitz as Levinson’s film proceeds to go between the grim viscera of the Holocaust – wherein we meet Billy Magnussen’s chillingly callous SS Officer Schneider and witness the full extent of Haft and his fellow prisoners’ suffering – and the haunted aftermath, where Hertzko Haft is only ever a familiar phrase or a startling sound away from a flashback that will smash the granite walls he has tried to build around his history.

The Auschwitz sections of the film are brutal, relentless in their depictions of every kind of torture and violence. The fights Haft is forced to partake in are ugly, sweaty, Raging Bull reminiscent encounters, largely portrayed as if part of one continuous brawl rather than individual fights with individual people. These boxing matches are driven by a sense of utter desolation and punctuated by the sickening sounds of shattering teeth and bloodshed. The most affecting moments in these black and white sections though – which at times see Levinson paint his picture in such broad strokes that tone drowns out character – are those in which Haft’s eyes meet with both his tormentors and his victims and you can see him frantically seeking a way out. In a particularly harrowing scene he begs his competitor to finish him, which they won’t, and so as they lay on the cusp of death they ask him to perform the mourners’ Kaddish. Even in such utterly horrific circumstances, a shared moment of faith prevails – something somewhere between acceptance, forgiveness, and on the part of the dying, relief even.

Where Levinson maybe missteps however with The Survivor is in a sense that he is beholden to spending as much time as possible in the acts that shape the ghosts which haunt Haft, when in reality the most intriguing and captivating facets of the film are those which explore how he carries those ghosts with him and the focuses he finds in search of absolution. The horrors of the Holocaust itself have been so well documented and oft-explored in prestige dramas of this kind, but when it comes to the story of survivors like Haft who – no matter how you cut it – assisted the Nazis in genocide, the opportunity to really dig into survivors’ guilt and the residual trauma feels like one that has been somewhat missed or at the very least not fully seized upon.

Towards the film’s third act, we go farther past the aftermath of the Holocaust to the early 1960s, where a noticeably older Haft is finally given closure on the lost love of his youth (though by this point he is happily married to Vicky Krieps’ stoic widow Miriam). Unfortunately though, this romance plot thread is so side-lined by the cycles of fighting, flashbacks, and Magnussen’s Schneider pontificating on hammers, anvils, and the banality of the evils he enacts that there isn’t a big pay-off to everything we have seen because there’s been little by way of build-up.

Foster’s deeply rooted performance carries so much of Levinson’s film, with his physicality and depth of expression reaching further often than the screenplay dares to, whilst Hans Zimmer’s score and Steel’s evocative camerawork offer an unobtrusive but wholly effective emotional guide through the rigours of Haft’s life. The story told in The Survivor is also, undeniably, a powerful one, and one which reckons with situations and decisions and lived experiences too devastating to have come from a place of anything other than truth. But, whether it’s the lopsided balance of the film’s chronological shifts, the obviousness of its crutches in depicting PTSD, the only loosely drawn raft of supporting characters, or simply that Levinson strives so earnestly for formal panache and factual detail that he loses sight of a huge opportunity to dig into and explore a fascinating case study of the human spirit and its capacity to endure Hell on Earth, The Survivor ends up turning a singular true story into something a touch too general to land a knockout blow.

The Survivor played as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2021.

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