It was about damn time for Hollywood to finally settle and attempt to tackle the tragic life and legacy of Harry Haft into celluloid form. Since his death in 2007, the turbulent life-story of Haft and his survival at Auschwitz speaks for itself. Haft’s life was one of various hardships; where the psychological and sociological confrontations with his Jewish heritage post-holocaust would ultimately serve as Barry Levinson’s prominent thematic angle in his adaptation entitled ‘The Survivor’. A film detailing the transition of Haft’s career to family life —in a grandiose attempt to implement catharsis and absolution with his own relieved faith-based anguish—Levinson’s admirable attempt at capitalising Haft’s harrowing story still leaves plenty of conventionality and western cinema tropes within its nonlinear cinematic structure.
The ingredients are all here from a technical standpoint. The makeup and hairstyling is seamless; transforming A-list actors into indistinguishable strangers and war casualties. Aiding the makeup concept, Ben Foster’s physicality radiates exhaustion, whilst further exemplifying Haft’s growing discontent and restless anxiety. With swollen eyes, a slurred polish accent, and stout posture — Foster nails his performance in the lead role of Harry Haft; a man tired of his memories, his legacy, and tribulations with his morally-skewed actions.
The film’s transitions from monochrome to colour blend seamlessly with Haft’s auditory triggers; match cuts are hidden directional cues, as the flash of a camera bulb induces a flashback frenzy for our flawed protagonist. The black and white ruminations are also slightly skewed — either by the haze of a flame burning in the middle of a concentration camp, or the spiralling chaos of a do-or-die boxing match. His life is all but dependent on a sadistic game, labeled as entertainment by the clutch of facist authorities. The game in & of itself is Haft’s prominent weakness; a physiological torment that continues to sting long after his post-war liberation.
It’s a proactive theme; a motif that highlights Haft’s experiences with shunning and rejection from the public-view. It’s by-far the strongest element of Levinson’s film, where the majority of its biopic conventions are limited by the film’s pedantic reliance on western filmmaking tropes. An overused Hans Zimmer score, occasional over-cutting, preachy exposition, and high-frame rate dips are all frequent nuisances that add a level of unnecessary exploitation towards Harry Haft’s story. Yet even with its occasional moments of repetitive conventionality, there’s a consistent degree of dedication and passion found within The Survivor. Even with its setbacks, the film details a motivated portrait of outdated fame; a man hooked on the American Dream as a motivation to fight, a reason to indulge and suffocate his trauma. It’s a film with an overarching purpose; one that somewhat satisfies even with its redundant cinematic limitations.
The Survivor screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Gala Presentations program. Elevation Pictures will release the film in Canada in the coming months.