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‘The Survivor’: Barry Levinson’s morally complex Holocaust tale

Based on the true story of Harry Haft, the movie stars Ben Foster as the ethically tortured Pole who survived Auschwitz by entertaining his Nazi captors in the boxing ring

Ben Foster, como el boxeador protagonista de 'El superviviente de Auschwitz'.
Ben Foster in 'The Survivor.'
Javier Ocaña

Amid hunger, filth, degradation, violence and death, the Jews had to make decisions every minute of every day to survive in a place built for their extermination. They were decisions ranging from the most practical and mundane to the most morally complex. One of the most sinister consequences of Nazi cruelty was to foster guilt in those of their victims who managed to survive. There was the gas chamber, or there was the penance to be paid for escaping it.

Having actively and passively dealt with the tragedy of the Holocaust, cinema has reflected the moral conflict from various angles, based on both fact and fiction, with stories that perfectly embody the humiliation visited upon Holocaust survivors such as Sophie’s Choice, when a mother is forced to choose which of her children will escape death.

But few films have tackled the theme of atonement head on. Enter The Survivor, based on the true story of Harry Haft, a Pole who got through the horrors of the camps by fighting other Jews to the death in the ring to entertain his Nazi captors. Conceived in the classic cinematic tradition, and directed by the octogenarian Barry Levinson, with a cast including Ben Foster, Vicky Krieps, Danny DeVito, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Magnussen and John Leguizamo, the movie was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding TV movie last year.

Streaming on HBO, The Survivor is, in a sense, a movie from a bygone era: from the 1980s and 1990s, those years in which Levinson moved with ease, winning two Oscars and getting himself nominated seven times in three different categories — production, direction, and screenplay. Now, when it is hard to find movies that carry the Levinson touch, he can rightly boast of making compelling, thought-provoking yet commercial movies such as Diner, Wag The Dog, Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man and Sleepers.

Narrated in three different time frames, The Survivor uses the rather clichéd technique of relating the most distant time sequences in black and white, yet George Steel’s camera work is remarkable and entirely distinct from today’s on-trend black and white digital texture.

Woven around two very different love stories — one passionate, the other serene — and incorporating elements of classic boxing movies, the struggle for survival as well as a moving depiction of purgatory, Levinson’s work, with its solid storytelling and its treatment of enormously complex motifs, stands apart from the many recent novels and films delving into similar themes using a more superficial, bland and gratuitously explicit approach.

Ben Foster’s superb portrayal of the inner torment suffered by a man condemned to live is unlikely to disappoint. And the most savvy cinephiles will be familiar with Levinson’s reflection on the weight of memory and its practical translation to the screen, which is not unlike what Sidney Lumet laid out in his book How Movies Are Made and applied to the making of his own film, The Pawnbroker.

The Survivor

Director: Barry Levinson.

Interpreters: Ben Foster, Vicky Krieps, Billy Magnussen, Peter Sarsgaard, John Leguizamo, Danny DeVito. 

Genre: Drama. United States, 2021.

Duration: 129 minutes.

Premiere: September 2021.

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