Director Barry Levinson brings the confidence of a professional lifetime to this heartfelt true story of Herschel “Harry” Haft, a tough Polish Jew who boxed as a light heavyweight in the postwar United States, even taking on Rocky Marciano. But he was trained in boxing in the Nazi concentration camp of Jaworzno in Nazi-occupied Poland, part of a grotesque gladiatorial entertainment devised by the SS to entertain the bored, cruel officers. The losers died and the winners got to survive.
And so this movie tracks Harry’s agonised survivor-guilt after the war, his private anguish at feeling that for a Holocaust survivor like him, winning in the ring is associated with a deeper loss and shame. But Harry fights on, hoping that his increasing fame and sensational life story will catch the eye of the girl he once loved before the war and who disappeared after being herself sent to the camps. Perhaps she, también, has survived.
Ben Foster is fierce and fervent in the role of pugnacious Harry, his face morphing from a gaunt anchorite thinness in his youth to a bloated and bulbous middle age; Vicky Krieps gives a performance of intelligence and humility as Miriam, the secretary in the New York office of displaced persons who falls in love with Harry but is never quite able to soothe the hidden wound in his soul; Saro Emirze is his brother and manager Peretz; Danny DeVito has a cameo as the trainer from the Marciano camp who gives Harry off-the-record guidance; Peter Sarsgaard is the cynical journalist who latches on to Harry’s story and Billy Magnussen is Schneider, the fastidious and sneeringly conceited SS officer who “trains” and exploits Harry and who, with his specious gestures of kindness towards his protégé-prisoner, is the most culpable of all.
The Survivor is put together with craftsmanship and confidence, but is very clearly derivative: almost a case of Schindler’s List meets Raging Bull. Después de la guerra, miserable Harry, with his hair-trigger temper and his quarrels with his brother is almost a clone of Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta from Scorsese’s film, especially when he gets older, fatter, with frizzier hair. The fight scenes themselves are shot and edited like less intense versions of the LaMotta contests.
But they are in colour. This film switches to black-and-white – signaling the highest level of tragic importance and authenticity – for the camp scenes, not the fight scenes, this being the accepted Hollywood way of rendering them tastefully. Maybe it is understandable. But opinions will divide about the hokum-factor involved in interspersing Harry’s postwar boxing career in America with flashbacks of the black-and-white nightmare in the camps: fireworks triggering memories of gunfire etc. Y por supuesto, there are still unresolved issues about representing the evil of the camps in this way, a debate that has continued since Jacques Rivette memorably condemned scenes in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò, set in a concentration camp, for trivialising or over-aestheticising the atrocity.
In many ways, The Survivor works best without the weight of the war, when Harry is just plying his trade and realising that he is on the skids, that the losses are outnumbering the wins, that the next thing he will have to survive is his ordinary, civilian career as a pro boxer and he must do something else with his life, especially as he accepts he will have to give up on his dream on finding his first love: a realisation that coincides with his narrow defeat at the hands of Rocky Marciano. De hecho, this mystery of the lost love is solved in the sad, sweet final scene – the best scene of the film.
The Survivor wins on points, a decent and honourably intended picture about one man’s ordeal in the horror of the Holocaust and the heartbreak that came afterwards.