Post World War II, Harry Haft is a boxer who fought fellow prisoners in the concentration camps to survive. Haunted by memories and guilt, he attempts to use high-profile fights against boxing legends like Rocky Marciano as a way to find his first love again.

Chuck says:

Barry Levinson’s “The Survivor” is a disjointed film that never finds a proper rhythm, a movie that proves awkward and at times simply doesn’t mesh. Nonetheless, it proves a moving experience thanks in large part to a profound performance by the perpetually overlooked Ben Foster, as well as its compelling story, a fact-based tale based on the harrowing life of boxer Henry Haft, who’s remembered as an interesting footnote in the history of the sport, but whose life was an astounding testament to courage and perseverance.

Levinson and screenwriter Justine Juel Gillmer utilize a sliding timeline in the film, the narrative moving back and forth along various points in Haft’s life, effectively underscoring that his past is ever-present.  However, the bulk of the story is anchored in post-WWII New York, as the boxer desperately tries to arrange a bout with up-and-coming heavyweight Rocky Marciano.  While this is obviously a good career move, Haft has an ulterior motive – he hopes the publicity surrounding the perspective match will be seen by Leah (Dar Zuzovsky), his first love he was separated from during the war.

However, Haft can never find any peace as his traumatic past is never far from his mind. Presented in black-and-white, the flashbacks reveal a perverse relationship that develops between him and Nazi officer Dietrich Schneider (Billy Magnussen), the latter forcing him to compete in boxing matches in which the loser is executed. Harrowing and brutal, Levinson pulls no punches in presenting the violence of these contests, but more importantly they capture the psychological effects these contests take on Haft.

Foster’s contribution to the film can’t be overstated.  Radically altering his body, moving with a physicality that speaks to the emotional weight he carries while employing a convincing accent, his transformation is on par to the changes De Niro underwent for “Raging Bull.”  And yet, there’s never a sense Foster he’s acting, his submersion into the role complete, the illusion that we’re watching Haft’s struggles an all-consuming, transcendent experience for the viewer.

Be that as it may, as constructed, the film works against Foster’s efforts. The ratcheting back and forth between eras proves jarring at times and prevents the movie from creating the sense of momentum it vitally needs. This approach inhbits certain aspects of Haft’s life from being adequately developed, particularly his relationship with his long-suffering wife Miriam (Vicky Krieps). The actress proves a worthy co-star for Foster, her intensity matching his, the pair grounding their performances throughout with sincerity and restraint.

If the film has a fault, it’s that it attempts too much, the material coming off as unwieldy and at times without form.  While the flashbacks to Haft’s war experience are engrossing, not simply because of their vivid nature but because of the revelations that occur concerning his relationship with Schneider, his post-boxing life comes off as an afterthought rather than a fully constructed storyline. If anything, this story cries out for a mini-series approach to help facilitate a more comprehensive telling of Haft’s life.

Still and all, there’s no doubt that when the works, it works very well. The emotional impact of “Survivor” cannot be denied, thanks to Foster’s poignant performance and Levinson’s ability to frame this story in a genuine manner. At one point, the notion that you approach life as either a hammer or an anvil is introduced, Haft given no choice but to be the former.  Ultimately, his PTSD forces him to assume the latter, a role he’s less prepared to handle.  That he survives is a testament to his courage and ability to cope with a world that continually fought against him.

3 Stars


Pam says:

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.

To read Pam’s review in its entirety, go to RHR


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