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The Survivor review – ambitious but scattered take on an extraordinary story

Barry Levinson's Holocaust boxer biopic is well made and tastefully told, but fails to carve out much of an identity of its own

For a film with a central hook as solid as “the true story of the Jewish survivor who made it through the Holocaust as a boxer in the camps,” Barry Levinson’s The Survivor is surprisingly scattershot. From the opening few minutes, which jump between time periods and continents, while switching between full colour and black and white, Levinson makes it clear that he wants to tackle the full life of Polish Jew Harry Haft (played by Ben Foster) – an admirably ambitious goal which sometimes comes unstuck.

After a very brief prologue on the beaches of Georgia in the ‘60s, we go back to late-‘40s New York, where Haft makes a living as a decent – but not spectacular – middleweight fighter. He’s keeping his trauma bottled up, partly under the instructions of his brother, only letting his emotions slip through in his search for his girlfriend Leah, taken by the Nazis in 1941, his frustration at the search bubbling up in violent outbursts.

We’re a decent way into The Survivor before Levinson shows us the full horror of Haft’s experiences in the camps, switching into monochrome for these flashbacks. Haft is scouted by the SS camp commander, Dietrich Schneider (Billy Magnussen, perfectly cast), who sees in his strength a chance for fun and profit, boxing the chosen Jewish fighters of other camp guards in barbaric contests every Sunday.

Foster does a tremendous job of selling the annihilating pain and fear that surrounds Haft every day, the feeling draining from his eyes as he moves from the Sonderkommando unit to the boxing ring, every ‘victory’ over his fellow prisoners more a hollow defeat that gives him little other than survivor’s guilt. He’s actually better than the material for a lot of The Survivor, which tries to balance its Schindler’s List-evoking Holocaust scenes with a more Raging Bull-style story of Haft’s washed-up post-boxing life, all puffy-face prosthetics and angry outbursts at his wife Miriam (Vicky Krieps, underused).

It’s a tightrope walk that sometimes gets the better of Levinson, not helped by the fact that both the films he’s homaging are stone-cold masterpieces that never make for flattering comparison material. The constant switching between eras also creates a tonal confusion, the stark nightmare of the camps suddenly replaced by Danny DeVito cameoing as a motormouth boxing coach.

It’s when The Survivor trusts itself enough to slow down that it’s at its best, focusing in on Foster’s performance which shines even hidden behind layers of prosthetics, another impressive entry into his quietly excellent career. Moments where he tries to talk both about and around the trauma with his fellow survivors are genuinely affecting, and the way he expresses Haft’s internal torment as he builds a more human relationship with the inexpressibly evil Schneider is excellent. The scenes in which Schneider waxes poetic about empire and the inevitable failure of the Third Reich are a bit fanciful, but Magnussen handles them well and gets one genuinely great line where he tells Haft “I didn’t kill [your friend’s] wife…the machine did.”

The Survivor doesn’t really carve out much of an identity for itself, but it’s a solidly made and tastefully told version of a remarkable and devastating true story of the cost of surviving one of history’s most unimaginable terrors.

The Survivor is now showing on Sky Cinema.

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