Ben Foster gives a knockout performance as a boxer in the Holocaust.
I didn’t know Auschwitz had boxing, considering all the horrific tortures. I didn’t even learn about it in school. “The Survivor,” which makes its premiere on HBO, taught me about the real life Polish boxer Harry Haft (1925-2007), who survived the Holocaust with his fighting skills. Ben Foster portrays him in different angels. During the holocaust, he looks like he’s starving to death, afterwards, he looks like Scott Caan, and in 1963, he looks old and a bit chubby. Kudos to make-up artist Jamie Kelman (“Vice,” “Iron Man”) for giving him the right prosthetics.
You know the movie wants to have a “Schindler’s List” feel when the Holocaust scenes are shot in black and white, while the later years are in color. You know director Barry Levinson is back to his true form (“Rain Man” and “Good Morning, Vietnam” being among his best), when tackles on both genres and guides the right actors who know the stakes. And even in the black and white format, the fights still look violent and bloody with some “Raging Bull” intensity.
The supporting cast also consists of Billy Magnussen as Nazi colonial Dietrich Schneider, who recruits Harry to fight against the other prisoners in the ring; John Leguizamo and Paul Bates (“Coming to America) as his trainers; Dar Zuzovsky as his first love who was taken by the Nazis; Peter Sarsgaard as a journalist who gets Harry’s story in the papers, which makes half the community hate him (a jew fighting for the Nazis-not a good vibe); Saro Emirze as his brother and manager; Vicky Krieps as a woman who tries to help him find his lover and becomes his future wife; and Danny DeVito as a trainer for Rocky Maciano, who finds out about Harry’s fights in the camps, but secretly agrees to give him some fighting tips.
In recent memory, “Hell or High Water” and the under-appreciated “Leave No Trace” have both represented Foster’s talents in ways unimaginable. His performances in those movies were transcending and remarkable, and now, “The Survivor” wisely joins the club. Besides the make-up, he’s able to ease his emotions, and draw us into the life of Harry Haft without trying so hard to earn an Oscar nomination. Maybe he’ll be nominated, maybe not, but either way, he’s exceptional in this role, especially the way he uses the Polish accent.
I’ve never heard of Emirze, but he does a fine job at introducing himself as the brother when he tries to bring out the best of Harry. Krieps also uses her tone wisely as the new muse. Sarsgaard has attitude as the journalist. Bates has the right dialogue as one of the trainers. And Magnussen is surprisingly convincing as the main Nazi, almost at the level of Christoph Waltz in “Inglorious Basterds” or Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List.” These are the supporting actors I’ve really enjoyed.
Of course, we have to reach the point when Harry starts a family and believes his son (Zachary Golinger) is going soft, probably taking after his mother’s side. It should have been stronger in this part, but it still has its moments. “The Survivor” is not about this side. It’s about how a boxer had to survive during his imprisonment, at the cost of other prisoners, and how he tries to keep moving forward.
Levinson, whose last movie was the bomb “Rock the Kasbah,” proves he can find the right material to film without trying to consume the picture. Maybe his next film will be great, too, as long as he reconnect to his roots and push himself to various limits. The Survivor” is a fine first connection between Foster and Levinson.
Streaming on HBO Max