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#TIFF21 Review: The Survivor (Gala Presentations)

September 14, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Filmmaker Barry Levinson returns to the big screen with The Survivor, a biopic of Holocaust survivor turned boxer Harry Haft, who is played extremely well in the film by Ben Foster, delivering one of the finest performances of his career.

The screenplay by Justine Juel Gillmer focuses on Haft at three key points in time. In flashbacks to during the war, we see the Polish-Jewish Haft’s horrific experience as a prisoner at Auschwitz, where a cruel, sadistic Nazi officer (played chillingly well by Billy Magnussen, who embodies pure evil) agrees to let him survive in exchange for fighting in boxing matches with other prisoners, that are staged for the sick entertainment of the guards.

The film splits its time between two later periods in Haft’s life. In 1949, Haft, having emigrated to America, is struggling to earn a living as a boxer and trying to land a headlining fight in hopes of reaching the attention of the girlfriend that he left behind in Poland. It’s here that he meets and starts to fall in love with Miriam (Vicky Krieps), a widow who helps other survivors locate displaced loved ones from the war. In 1963, he is trying to move forward in his life, but still dealing with the survivor’s guilt of essentially having sent other Jewish men to their deaths in exchange for his own life.

The concentration camp scenes, which are evocatively shot in black and white by cinematographer George Steel, are disturbing and chillingly effective. While The Survivor does dip into melodrama in some of the later scenes, Foster commands the screen through it all. Having lost over sixty pounds to convincingly play the role of a concentration camp prisoner, and gaining it back to play a boxer, the actor believably transforms into every aspect of the role. Foster also does an excellent job of portraying Haft’s PTSD-induced panic attacks.

Levinson’s film has some of the trappings of Oscar bait (it sometimes feels like a prestige picture from the 1980s or 1990s), and is maybe a little overly sentimental in places, especially at the end. The film also feels a bit long at over two hours. But The Survivor still works as a solid, old fashioned drama, that is elevated every step of the way by Foster’s intensely dedicated performance. Finally, the film is set to an excellent, soaring score by Hans Zimmer.

Public Screenings:

Monday, September 13th – 5:30 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Monday, September 13th – 9:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

Saturday, September 18th – 5:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

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