No sport lends itself to movies quite like boxing. A person enters with just shorts, gloves, and courage. Once the bell sounds, no one can help. It’s fighter vs. fighter. In The Survivor, the battle both inside and outside the ring is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. The HBO biopic debuts this Wednesday, which is Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).
The Survivor tells the true and horrifying story of Harry Haft. At Auschwitz, he was barbarically forced to box against fellow prisoners. These were literal fights to the death because the ‘loser’ was killed by the Nazis.
By ‘winning’ these grotesque bouts, Haft survived the infamous concentration camp. He went on to become a professional fighter who was best known for taking on Rocky Marciano in 1949.
This film is based on the book Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano by Alan Haft (Harry Haft’s son), and it’s directed by Oscar-winner Barry Levinson. The Survivor originally made its premiere at the 2021 Toronto Film Festival before the rights were purchased. HBO was probably swayed by Ben Foster’s riveting performance.
If you didn’t know Foster was in this movie, you might be surprised. He is almost unrecognizable from previous works like Hell or High Water or Leave No Trace. Foster’s physical transformation is reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s in Raging Bull. He reportedly dropped 60 pounds to look emaciated for the camp scenes and bulked up to play Haft later in life.
It’s not just the weight. Whether it’s prosthetics, makeup, or lighting, Foster looks and moves differently. Acting has a lot to do with that too. Foster threw himself into this role. He’s excellent at portraying a man who is grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder as well as survivor’s guilt.
To survive, Haft had to face some horrible choices. More than anything else, The Survivor is a film about the decisions one has to make to stay alive. In Haft’s case, it was beating up fellow prisoners so that he could live. Levinson is a craftsman when it comes to the Auschwitz scenes, which are filmed in black and white. Fair warning, many of these moments are brutal and hard to watch.
One particularly powerful/jarring scene is when a sadistic camp officer, Dietrich Schneider (Billy Magnussen), discovers Haft knows how to fight. In the middle of an atrocity, it is startling that Schneider would see an opportunity to cash in. The Nazis are staging these fights not just for entertainment. They are wagering on the outcomes.
Schneider has just found his star boxer: Haft. The interactions between the two might be the most interesting part of the movie. On one hand, Haft receives “perks” because he is making money for Schneider. On the other, the Nazi takes an evil delight in putting Haft in dehumanizing positions.
And like most sadists, Schneider loves to shift the blame to the victim. In the dying days of World War II, he taunts Haft by saying: “Where will you go? You murdered your own people.” It’s an unsettling scene in a movie filled with them.
The Survivor jumps back and forth between Haft’s time in Auschwitz and his life in America. The transitions here aren’t always seamless, but Levinson does mostly a good job by using PSTD as an entryway for looking into the past. There are also his conversations with a reporter (Peter Sarsgaard), which lead to some of the more critical moments of the story.
What works well are the pro boxing scenes, including Haft’s famous bout with Marciano. Marciano went on to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Those scenses feel authentic and are filmed beautifully. The Survivor is only Levinson’s second feature sports movie (he directed The Natural), but he has been involved in some other sports projects, including early 30 for 30 installment The Band That Wouldn’t Die. And he clearly understands the importance of paying attention to details.
Levinson put together a quality cast. It’s Foster’s show, but he had a lot of help. Vicky Krieps—so good in Phantom Thread—plays Haft’s girlfriend and eventual wife Miriam. Krieps plays an important role in challenging Haft and trying to get him to understand his destructive behavior. Also, Danny DeVito and John Leguizamo are effective in smaller parts.
The Survivor isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s an extremely important one.
The Survivor premieres on HBO on Wednesday, April 27 at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT. It will also be available to stream on HBO Max.