Review by Dan Skip Allen
Films about the Holocaust and WWII and sports films are two powerful genres. But to make a sports film with Holocaust/WWII elements is quite an achievement. Add in the legendary director of Rain Man, Barry Levinson, and two-time Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, and The Survivor was going to be a must-see.
Harry Haft (Ben Foster) is a survivor of the Holocaust. He spent many years at Auschwitz and Birkenau, the two worst concentration camps of the Third Reich. Years later, he uses the boxing skills he acquired at the camps to make a living and try to reach out to a long-lost friend.
The film takes place in two different eras. One era, the '50s, is filmed in color, and the other, the '40s, is filmed in black and white. Both periods the film deals with are done exquisitely by legendary filmmaker Barry Levinson. It's very clear he put a lot of thought and effort into adapting the book from Haft's son. The black and white scenes at the concentration camps are very bloody and brutal. The Jews are all thin and malnourished. Add in the fighting scenes, and you can tell this was not easy for the people or the actors who had to play these characters in this era. The '50s had fantastic production design, costumes, hair, and make-up. The cinematography in both eras was phenomenal.
The skill Haft got while he was at Auschwitz was boxing. It was a survival instinct at the time, but later on, it became a profession. He fought fellow Jews who were forced to fight each other for the entertainment of the Germans. In particular, one Nazi (Billy Magnussen) took him under his wing and tried to train him to make him a fighting machine. This paid off later because when he came to the United States, he became a professional boxer, fighting the likes of Rocky Marciano in his career. This was a fascinating story because I had never heard of Haft before seeing this film
Ben Foster has had an interesting career. His breakout role in 3:10 to Yuma opened everybody's eyes to what kinds of performances he's capable of. He followed that up with Leave No Trace a few years later. Now he's playing a boxer who was a holocaust survivor, and he has to look completely different for both eras the film takes place in and use an eastern European accent. Foster will surely garner a lot of awards talk for this incredible turn.
The supporting actors in the film were also very good and entertaining. John Leguizamo and Danny Devito play different boxing trainers from two different camps. They bring a sense of humor to an otherwise very serious film and story. Two more great supporting cast members are Vicky Krieps, a woman in immigration trying to help Haft find an old acquaintance, and Peter Sarsgaard as a reporter trying to help Haft get his story out to the public. All these superb supporting actors complement Foster very well. All great films need a great cast, and this one has it in spades.
The Survivor premiered in September back at TIFF 2021 to wide acclaim. It's finally coming out in April in the United States on HBO. They have an absolute winner on their hands. This man was a very complex individual, and Foster plays that up to a tee in the film. His ability to play one character with many facets should is commendable. He will surely be up for Emmys, SAGs, and Golden Globes when those award shows come back around. The crafts, especially the cinematography by George Steel and the production design, are both amazing. The score by Hans Zimmer is also great. This film is incredible by anybody's standards.
The Survivor debuts on HBO on April 27 at 8pm ET/PT.