When I first started watching The Survivor—director Barry Levinson’s latest film, about a Holocaust survivor who made it out of Auschwitz by fighting boxing matches to the death—I thought I was watching a remake of Triumph of the Spirit.
Triumph of the Spirit was also a film about a Holocaust prisoner fighting in boxing matches, with the loser of each match getting put to death. That one starred Willem Dafoe—and while it wasn’t a great film, it was much better than this one.
Levinson—the once-renowned director of Rain Man and Bugsy—seemingly lost it decades ago. While he’s had a fairly constant output over the years, his last great films came out more than 30 years ago. His repertoire since then ranges from the mediocre (Bandits) to the just plain awful (Wag the Dog, Envy). (Let’s be clear: The best thing he has ever done in his career is his small role as the irritable hotel employee in Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety. He’s the one who eventually stabbed Mel in the shower with a newspaper. I have always wanted a whole movie based on that character.)
The Survivor lands somewhere in the mediocre category, redeemed somewhat by the fact that Ben Foster is fairly engaging as the main character, Harry Haft, a character based on a real-life survivor who, after surviving the Nazi death camps, had a brief boxing career in the U.S. that included a bout with Rocky Marciano. Foster approached the role much like Robert De Niro did in Raging Bull: They have the same hair, and they used similar weight loss and gain tricks.
The Marciano fight is short but well-shot, in color. The Holocaust scenes are in black and white, but the direction of those scenes is unfortunately cliché-ridden. Billy Magnussen, usually a decent actor, is basically an evil cartoon character as the Nazi officer who uses Harry for profit.
Considering the subject matter, this story should have had a little more heft. The final quarter of the film is the weakest portion—and the first three quarters weren’t very good to begin with.
The Survivor is now streaming on HBO Max.