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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

May 5, 2022



             Ben Foster as Herschel, the prisoner boxer in the Auschwitz concentration camp

                           BEN FOSTER AS HARRY IN NEW YORK, WITH VICKY KRIEPS                               

 THERE HAVE been so many films about the Holocaust and its victims, like “Schindler’s List”, “The Pawnbroker”, “Diary of Anne Frank”, “The Pianist”, etc. 

“The Survivor” is the harrowing story of Harry Haft or Herschel (Ben Foster), a Polish Jew who is a prisoner at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. 

The film is the story of how he survived it and how he later tries to live a new and very different life in New York City after World War II. 

“The Survivor” is directed by Barry Levinson, best known for “Rain Man” that won the Oscar best picture, best director, best original screenplay and the best actor award for Dustin Hoffman in 1988. 

His other acclaimed films are “Avalon”, “Bugsy” and “Wag the Dog”. He’s now 80 years old and still actively directing. 

“The Survivor” is told in a non-linear manner and goes back and forth in time to Herschel’s stay in Auschwitz and his later life in New York as Harry. 

While in the camp, he sees a German soldier mauling a co-prisoner, so he retaliates by repeatedly hitting the soldier with his fists.  

An SS officer (Billy Magnusen) sees how solid his punches are and offers him to be his prized fighter in boxing matches held on makeshift boxing rings inside the camps. 

He will be fighting the other prisoners. In every bout, whoever wins gets to live. Herschel has no choice but to fight the prisoners that are pitted against him, all of them so thin and undernourished. 

They do it for the sadistic entertainment of the other German soldiers and officers who are watching them. 

The bouts are brutal and in one instance, Herschel is made to fight his opponent in a grueling bout of 30 rounds. They’re waiting for him to tire himself and knock himself out. 

The scenes in New York show his efforts to establish a boxing career in the Big Apple while he’s also searching for the girlfriend named Lea who he lost during the war. 

Helping him look for her is a very accommodating woman, Miriam (Vicky Krieps of “Phantom Thread” and “Old”), who eventually becomes his wife. 

He wants to figure in a big fight that will put his name on newspapers so that Lea might read it, that is, if she also survived the war. 

He agrees to be interviewed by a reporter (Peter Sarsgaard) and his story is published in the papers. 

The other members of the Polish community shun him when they learned he fought his own friends and countrymen and could not understand he did it for him to able to stay alive.    

The highlight of his career in New York is his fight with future world champ Rocky Marciano, who outpunched him. Intertwined with this are the scenes of how he escaped from the camp and had a confrontation with the SS officer who took him as his ward.

This cross-cutting between scenes from the past and Harry’s life in the 60s, when he’s already a dad alienated even from his own eldest son, works in the early part of the film, but later becomes unwieldy. 

The film loses its focus, becomes badly paced, making it quite meandering and cumbersome. 

Harry is obviously suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is compounded by his guilt feelings for what he has done to his fellow prisoners. 

What carries the film is Ben Foster’s committed portrayal of the title role, successfully showing Harry's anger, shame and anguish resulting from his past traumatic experiences. 

Foster holds the film together and gets to maintain his raw tension and commanding presence all throughout. 

He has previously rendered good performances as the war veteran hiding his daughter in the forest in “Leave No Trace” and as the bad brother of Chris Pine in “Hell or High Water”. 

Here, he does what Robert de Niro did in his Oscar-winning role in “Raging Bull” and Christian Bale in “The Machinist”.  

In the Auschwitz scenes, Foster lost so much weight you can see his bones protruding from his ribs. In the New York post-war scenes, he has a more corpulent body as a professional boxer. 

The movie is based on a book written by Harry’s eldest son, Alan, and it captures Harry’s complicated dilemma: can anyone forgive himself for what he thinks are unforgivable sins? 

The boy apparently wrote the book to help solve the puzzle and mystery that his father was.