‘The Survivor’ Review: Clenched Fists

No one is going to mistake “The Survivor” for Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker,” but this new film from Barry Levinson deals with the concept of Holocaust survivor’s guilt from a distinct and complicated perspective. The film concerns Harry Haft, a boxer who in 1949 lasted three rounds with a heavily favored Rocky Marciano. But of more note is how Haft, a Polish-born Jew, came to boxing. Years earlier, an SS officer who encountered Harry, born Hertzka, at Auschwitz-Birkenau enlisted him to pummel other Jews in bouts held for the entertainment of Nazi officers.

“The Survivor,” adapted by Justine Juel Gillmer from a book by Haft’s son Alan Scott Haft, proceeds through interlocked flashbacks from 1963. A toughened-up but spry and credibly accented Ben Foster plays Harry. Peter Sarsgaard, featured mainly in the 1949 scenes, appears as a journalist interested in the moral gray areas of his story, which risks making Harry a pariah even among fellow survivors. Vicky Krieps plays a potential romantic interest who helps him search for the woman he loved in Poland.

Levinson is perhaps not enough of a formalist to fully convey, assuming any film could, the combined visceral and mental toll professional boxing must have taken on a man haunted by brutalizing his comrades. (The director’s most heavy-handed touch comes in the camp scenes, when he scores a montage of Hertzka’s fights with a Yom Kippur prayer that is eventually revealed to be sung by an inmate.) But while Levinson is not working from his own history as in “Diner” or “Avalon,” “The Survivor,” partly because of its subject matter and postwar milieu, feels of a piece with those overtly personal films. Whatever its flaws, it’s powerful.

The Survivor
Rated R. Violence and cruelty in the concentration-camp scenes. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes. Watch on HBO platforms.

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