Barry Levinson introduced the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of his latest film, The Survivor, by telling a story about being a kid in the late 1940s and discovering that his grandmother had a brother he never knew about when the man came knocking on their door. He stayed with Levinson’s family for two weeks, and the director heard him tossing and turning all night, having nightmares where he would be mumbling in another language, crying out in distress. He left after those two weeks, and Levinson never saw him again. Years later, when he was 18, the director’s mother told him that the man had been a prisoner in the camps during World War II, clicking into place that those nightmares were the result of his PTSD.
It’s clear from this story that The Survivor is a very personal film for Levinson. Written by Justine Juel Gillmer, this is a biographical drama telling the story of Harry Haft (Ben Foster), a Jewish man who survived the camps by boxing other prisoners for the entertainment of the guards. Whoever lost each fight would be shot by the guards right then and there, giving Harry the knowledge that each fight would either result in his death or the death of the man he was forced to compete against. This is the kind of impossible moral dilemma that was faced every day by Jewish prisoners during the war, one that has stuck with Haft in the many years since.
Gillmer’s script bounces back and forth between multiple timelines. In black and white, we see Harry’s struggle to survive life in the camps, recruited by a sadistic Nazi officer (a woefully miscast Billy Magnussen) to essentially serve as his prize dog, fighting man after man in the ring. In color, we see two other periods. In 1949, Haft has returned from the war and is attempting to cope with his PTSD by getting back in the ring. At the same time, he’s going to an office where people try to find loved ones that went missing in the war, and it’s there he meets Miriam (Vicky Krieps), a worker at the office whom he strikes up a bond with. Later, in 1963, Haft hopes to finally achieve some sense of peace, while navigating a family and the scars that will never fully heal.
Foster gives the type of committed performance we’ve come to expect from the actor, truly one of the best working today. It’s a remarkable feat of physical and emotional transformation, disappearing into the role the way that he always does, capturing the anguish that rests in the soul of this man who went through more than many of us could ever possibly imagine. Many actors would be keen to overplay the pain, the internal torture, that this man is going through, but Foster wisely underplays it, carrying that weight in his eyes which speak volumes without him having to say a word. One look into them and you can see into the damaged heart of the man.
It’s a shame, then, that the script can’t keep up with him. The constant bouncing between timelines creates a pacing malfunction that inhibits any ability for The Survivor to effectively build momentum. The already extensive two hour and nine minute running time ends up feeling closer to three, as the second half in particular becomes a laborious venture of repeating similar sequences we’ve already understood the emotional significance of. Despite tremendous work from Foster, and a clearly heartfelt Levinson giving more passion to a project than we’ve seen from him in a long time, it becomes difficult to engage with the film on a more meaningful level. The reliance on biopic tropes, rather than trusting the resonance that’s at the heart of its story, proves to be a major detriment to a film that had much more potential than what we see in the final product.