22 June 2024

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review – The Survivor (2021)

At 79, Barry Levinson has amassed an enviable career as a director – an Oscar for Rain Man, helming the likes of Good Morning Vietnam, The Natural and Wag The Dog, and only venturing onto the smaller screen in more recent years. His episodes of Dopesick arrive on Disney + in mid-October after an early screening at the London Film Festival. The Survivor, however, is his first feature film for six years and it only takes a quick scan of the plot to conjure up the names of two other legendary movies.

Herschel – later Harry – Haft (Ben Foster) is a Polish Jew sent to Auschwitz after the Nazi invasion and, after a fight with a guard, is spotted by an officer (Billy Magnussen) who makes him a sadistic offer. By way of entertainment for the senior Nazis, he can fight fellow prisoners: the winner of each bout survives to fight again, while the loser is either shot or sent to the gas chambers. Kept alive by his determination to survive, when the camps are liberated he eventually finds his way to America, where he resurrects his boxing career and prepares for a fight with Rocky Marciano. But the memories of his time in the camp continually haunt him ….

It’s hard to avoid comparisons with Schindler’s List and Raging Bull, especially when the flashbacks to the concentration camp are shown in black and white and when, as the older Harry, Foster is only partly recognisable underneath prosthetics creating a striking resemblance to De Niro’s older incarnation of Jake La Motta. As a film, though, The Survivor doesn’t quite stand up to either of them, despite the extraordinary story it tells – one of fighting (literally) to survive, guilt, loss, and the lasting effects of severe trauma. While the fight scenes in Auschwitz are distressing – boxing they are not – they are virtually all we see of the camp and it’s only Foster’s painfully gaunt frame (he lost 60lbs to play the role) that gives an impression of the horrors of life away from the brutality of the ring.

The sequences set in the late 40s and the 60s, all of which are in colour, take us further into Harry’s life and his attempts to find his way out of what continues to be a living hell. His extreme responses can be trigged by anything from a firework show to a hotel door peephole. And, while the Marciano bout would seem to be the obvious climax and conclusion to the film, Levinson takes us deeper into his personal struggles, including his relationship with the quietly strong Miriam (Vicky Krieps). Hers is just one of a number of impressive performances in the film, from Peter Sarsgaard as a slippery journalist, Danny DeVito in a cameo as a trainer, and Magnussen as the arrogant Nazi officer who “trains” Harry. Levinson’s ability to extract the best out of his cast remains intact.

And that especially applies to Foster who gives a ferociously committed performance, something that’s hallmarked his roles since The Messenger. One of the stellar acting talents of his generation, he’s yet to receive the recognition he truly deserves and the sad fact is that, despite his in turns harrowing, fiery and empathetic turn being one of his best, he’s likely to be overlooked once again. It’s a film that’s confident, solid and reflects its director’s lengthy experience, but it’s Foster who makes sure your eyes never move from the screen.


Drama | Cert: tbc | Toronto International Film Festival, 13, 14 and 18 September 2021.|Dir. Barry Levinson | Ben Foster, Vicky Krieps, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Magnussen, Danny DeVito.

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