“The Survivor,” directed by Barry Levinson and starring the incomparable Ben Foster, depicts the true life story of Polish-born Auschwitz survivor Harry Haft as he fights his biggest opponent, his memories, while he searches for his lost love. It’s a haunting tale of humanity and survival and the price of both.
The opening scene is a gut punch as we watch a young couple, happy and in love, living life on the brink of war just prior to the Nazi invasion of Poland. As the two are separated, we follow Harry’s life both in his present post-World War II days and flashbacks to his past. Recollecting how he survived 6 months at this death camp to a reporter, Emory Anderson (Peter Sarsgaard), and being privy to Harry’s memories that infiltrate his day, we better understand the atrocities he endured, and the choices he made forcing him to chose between death and survival. And while he survived, he paid and continues to pay a price particularly as “his story” is published in the newspaper.
Harry is a successful fighter, driven by rage and his longing to find Leah (Dar Zuzovsky) in the hopes that somehow she too survived the horrors of the War. His ineffective daily requests from Miriam (Vicky Krieps) at a government agency on Leah’s status push him to find an alternative way to locate Leah; fight the heavy weight legend Rocky Marciano. As Pepe (John Leguizmo) and Charlie Goldman (Danny DeVito) train Harry, his eye remains on the prize— not winning, but finding Leah.
Foster’s transformative performance brings Haft’s story to life. Ratcheting between the current times and the past, there is an unmistakable pain behind his gaze, filled with tragic power that eats away at his psyche and our hearts. While in the concentration camp and forced to fight or die, Foster’s character is emaciated but unwilling to leave this world. His endurance and will to live is unparalleled. And Foster brings that same drive and tenacity to the current day character allowing us to understand the trauma and its effects on not only his life but future generations.
Taking a piece of global history to depict the inhumane treatment of a people while at the same time remembering that there is hope in healing, is a difficult balance to maintain. Too much in either direction and the story fails. “The Survivor” solidly and steadily walks this fine line as we connect with the character and sit on the edge of our seats wanting to know if he ever finds his love. And more importantly, can he ever forgive himself for the “choices” he made so many years ago?
This non-linear style of story-telling is key to giving us just a perfectly measured amount of information to engage us in the most empathic of ways. And with this empathy, the sights and sounds are sometimes too much, but are vital to telling this man’s story. These horrific images are burned into our minds to remind us of what people are capable of, but again, the story offers life, love, and hope.
Writer Justine Juel Gillmer known more for television series writing, creates a powerful tale brought to life by not only a talented ensemble cast, but also the keen and seasoned vision of Levinson…and we’d expect nothing less.