Weepy prestige biopics set during the Holocaust are nothing new; they’re the backbone of a robust subcategory of Oscar-hungry films eager for the audience’s attention (and awards consideration) even since Schindler’s List took home top prizes in the ‘90s. That’s not to say the greatest mass genocide in human history isn’t deserving of reflection and rumination — far from it. But it’s also difficult to truly do justice to its real-life atrocities without seeming mawkish or manipulative.
Barry Levinson’s latest, The Survivor, isn’t necessarily as cynical as all that. But it largely uses the tried-and-true cinematic cliches of the Shoah to offer a physically and emotionally transformative showcase for its lead, which provides a welcome respite from the creaky recitation of Holocaust movie formula.
Telling the true story of Hertzko Heft (Ben Foster), The Survivor introduces him in 1949 America, a down-on-his-luck prizefighter dubbed “the survivor of Auschwitz,” who’s relegated to side matches in Coney Island for thirty bucks a pop. He wants to fight Rocky Marciano, but his trainers (John Leguizamo and, later, Danny DeVito) don’t think he’s up to the task. But he’s also got other motives for landing such a high-profile fight: Maybe if he gets famous enough, Hertzko (now called Harry) will get the attention of Leah, a woman he met and fell in love with in the camps — if she’s still alive.
But the demons of his time in Jaworzno follow him around, both figuratively and, in the case of the flashback structure of Justine Juel Gillmer’s script, literally. Levinson alternates between grainy, vividly-colored 1940s America and high-contrast black and white to depict Heft’s tribulations in Auschwitz, where we learn that he survived the camps chiefly by becoming a champion boxer fighting other Jews for the Nazis’ entertainment. This is done at the behest of a Nazi commandant who takes a shine to Heft (Billy Magnusson, cartoonish as an SNL sketch), and who delights in toying with his prized possession.
Naturally, these traumas follow Heft into the present, where he channels every ounce of energy into training for a potential fight with Marciano, stopping only to begin a furtive romance with a widow named Miriam (played with bone-deep sincerity by Vicky Krieps) who tries to help Heft find Leah. He’s otherwise reticent to revisit his time in the camps, if not for the intervention of a well-intentioned reporter (Peter Sarsgaard, doing a lot with a little) who wants to tell his story.
But all of these game supporting players, for all the dramatic heft (eh?) they bring to their roles, are here merely in service to Foster, who admittedly turns in career-best work here. The ongoing game of actors undergoing incredibly physical transformations for the sake of a part has always struck me as self-aggrandizing and dangerous in equal measure, but it’s hard not to gasp at the changes Foster underwent to take on the role. He notoriously shed sixty pounds to depict Heft’s gaunt, emaciated self in the camps, flesh hanging off bones to an almost worrying degree, only to put it all back on (and a little more) to depict a healthier Heft in America. Later scenes in the ‘60s give us a Jake LaMotta version of Heft complete with potbelly and receding hairline, almost certainly aided with capable prosthetics.
But the performance itself backs up all of those changes, however frightening they can be to contemplate. With his wavy hair and lilting Yiddish accent, Foster certainly inhabits the regional specificity of his character, but he imbues it with enough humanity and pathos that it never veers into caricature. Foster has some of the most wounded eyes of any actor of his generation, and he puts them to good use here, piercing through the screen to offer up untold pain and sorrow that communicates Heft’s tragedies more effectively than any overwrought black-and-white flashback could ever communicate. It’s an incredible performance from an actor who’s always impressed, even in less-than-stellar films: The Survivor succeeds most when it acts as a showcase for his talents.
The film around Foster, while admirably made and well-acted, stumbles around him, especially in the later rounds. The Holocaust sections feel too Hollywood, and the America sections feel underbaked, like he’s filling time before Levinson can get to the next iteration of inhuman suffering. Ironically enough, Levinson’s film suffers from the same issues as its protagonist: It spends so much time looking back at the horrors of the past that it doesn’t know what to do with itself in the present.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. The Survivor is currently seeking U.S. distribution.