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film review

Ben Foster stars in The Survivor.Courtesy of HBO / Crave

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The Survivor

Directed by Barry Levinson

Written by Justine Juel Gillmer

Starring Ben Foster, Vicky Krieps, Billy Magnussen, Peter Sarsgaard, John Leguizamo

Classification N/A; 129 minutes

Opens April 27, streaming on Crave

In the biographical drama The Survivor, an American newspaperman is explaining moral shades of grey to a Polish-Jewish professional boxer and guilt-ridden Auschwitz survivor played by Ben Foster. He’s Harry Haft. The film is based on his memories.

“Nothing is black-and-white,” says the journalist played by Peter Sarsgaard. “That is the sweet spot of a story – the cracks in the common ground between good and evil, Nazi and Jew.”

The newspaperman has a good story, as does director Barry Levinson: Haft survives a German concentration camp by fighting his fellow prisoners in brutal bare-knuckle bloodbaths for the amusement of Nazi officers. The fights typically ended in the death of the loser. The full story is told in the book Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano, written by his son.

Vicky Krieps and Ben Foster in The Survivor.Jessica Kourkounis/Courtesy of HBO / Crave

Haft did what he did to survive. “You had no choice,” he is told repeatedly by friends and family. Haft’s not buying it, and he’s not alone. In Brooklyn after the war, his fellow Poles brand him a traitor and spit in his beer. He drinks it anyway. Perhaps he thinks he deserves it.

One man’s sweet spot is another man’s tortured no man’s land.

The Survivor is partly set in 1949, when Haft is a boxer on a losing streak in America. In between enduring beatings for $30, he tries to track down the love of his life, a Jewish girl who disappeared in the war. Part of his plan to find her is to fight the well-known Rocky Marciano. The publicity would get his name in the paper. Maybe she’ll see it, who knows?

Foster’s emotionally sinewy portrayal of Haft is commanding and nuanced. Brooding and prone to fits of anger, Haft is not an easy character to like. Foster doesn’t try to win us over.

Famously, Levinson has directed a sports film (The Natural) and a war film (Good Morning, Vietnam). With this rugged, wrenching story, we get a little of both. The film’s chronology is complicated, with more flashbacks than a Grateful Dead reunion. The death-camp horror scenes, shot in black-and-white, are displayed strikingly and, with help from Hans Zimmer’s sound score, grimly poetically. The stench and evil is almost palpable.

Foster was nearly 40 when The Survivor was shot. Slimmed down to a ghastly concentration-camp appearance, he presents much too old to be believable as a fighter. His corpse-like gauntness makes The Machinist’s Christian Bale look puffy in comparison.

Directed by Barry Levinson, The Survivor is based on a true story.Jessica Kourkounis/Courtesy of HBO / Crave

Billy Magnussen plays the handsome and slightly sympathetic SS officer who grooms Haft as a death-camp fighter. He’s pragmatic about the Holocaust and the war. He doesn’t hate Jewish people, he explains to Haft; he has simply picked the side most capable of emerging victorious.

The relationship between the two is fascinating – “even a beaten dog loves its master,” Haft says.

The acting is quite fine all around, especially Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps as Haft’s long-suffering wife. John Leguizamo is Haft’s spunky trainer. And we get a delightful few minutes out of Danny DeVito as Charlie Goldman, who was Marciano’s trainer.

The narrative thread involving Haft’s quest to find the girl taken from him during the Holocaust is sentimental and doesn’t really hold things together. It’s a long film, and the payoff might not be enough for some. But as a moody story about moral dilemmas and moving beyond the past, The Survivor outlasts its 129 minutes.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)