Ben Foster and Peter Sarsgaard
Ben Foster and Peter Sarsgaard (Photograph by Jessica Kourkounis/HBO)

The Survivor explores the fine line of choosing to survive or choosing to live.

Based on a true story, The Survivor follows the journey of professional boxer Harry Haft (Ben Foster). Haft, born in Poland in 1925, was a Holocaust survivor who lived through Auschwitz by winning boxing matches against fellow inmates. The 2021 film, directed by Barry Levinson, travels through Haft’s life, jumping continents and generations to tell the story of how one true love can inspire a man to survive anything.

The Survivor opens on a tranquil beach in Tybee Island, Georgia, in 1963, where Haft walks the sands alone. Yet as the camera travels downward, we see a shadow of a woman walking next to Haft, its movement cast on the sand. Haft, while alone in the physical sense, walks side-by-side with his long-lost love, Leah (Dar Zuzovsky), who was hauled away by Nazis in war-torn Poland two decades ago, never to be seen again.

Haft, however, never stops looking for Leah, driven by a feeling deep inside that somewhere, somehow, she survived the second World War. Engulfed in memories of Leah, Haft, despite now having made a new life in the United States where he boxed as a renowned light heavyweight, continues to be haunted by the events of the Holocaust. 

John Leguizamo, Ben Foster, Paul Bates, Danny DeVito
John Leguizamo, Ben Foster, Paul Bates, Danny DeVito Photograph by Jessica Kourkounis/HBO

One of the earliest scenes of the film shows Haft in the ring in Coney Island, New York, in 1949, where announcers call him the “Pride of Poland and Survivor of Auschwitz.” These words hold little meaning to Haft, whose mind is filled with memories of Leah, which play out in the film in black-and-white (while scenes after the war play out in color). There is a sense that these lost memories have also lost their color, a world that no longer exists for Haft, but one that continues to overshadow his present existence.

Throughout the film, we see increasing flashbacks to Auschwitz and later the Polish work camp, Jaworzno, where we learn how Haft was forced to box as a means to survive. It was a form of entertainment for the Nazi prison guards, who placed bets on Jewish inmates that resulted in bloody and deadly boxing matches. Haft, a favorite amongst the guards for his brute physical strength, fights his way to survival with only one mission in mind: to once again see his love, Leah.

The boxing matches, while full of unspeakable horrors, give Haft the strength to seek out freedom. After the camps are dissolved following the advance of the Soviet Army, Haft, while on a death march to Germany, manages to escape in April 1945. He fights his way through Germany and later a displaced persons camp, finally arriving in New York in 1948 where he returns to the boxing ring with legends such as Rocky Marciano (Anthony Molinari).

Ben Foster, Billy Magnussen
Ben Foster, Billy Magnussen Photograph by Leo Pinter/HBO

While establishing a name for himself in the American boxing world, Haft continues to search for Leah, eventually crossing paths with Miriam Wofsoniker (Vicky Krieps), an employee of the Displaced Persons Service who helps immigrants reunite with missing friends and family torn apart by war. Like Haft, she has also experienced lost love, her fiancé killed in the war. At first, Haft is reluctant to open up, but eventually forms a bond with Wofsoniker, whose calming personality offsets his often aggressive fighting spirit.

Yet life takes a different path for the boxer. Haft, after a hard loss to Marciano, retires from the sport. Haft and Wofsoniker eventually marry, yet Haft continues to live in the past, Leah on his mind. He’s haunted by nightmares that seem to grow worse with age. By the time his son, Alan (Kingston Vernes) is old enough to understand, their relationship is already at stake, a tension forming. Wofsoniker tells her son, his father “will tell you when he’s ready,” but Alan has questions that only Haft can truly answer.

Haft, now living in 1960s Florida, is faced with the ultimate test: to continue simply surviving or to wake up and make a choice to live. It’s a poignant and often heart-wrenching truth about surviving the Holocaust and the atrocities of World War II, with the horrors of that time period living with many for the rest of their lives. As Haft says goodbye to his past and puts memories of Leah to rest, he chooses to finally live. 

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