It’s common to talk about an actor disappearing into a role by undergoing a physical transformation – at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, you could say that’s what Jessica Chastain does for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” But Ben Foster’s transformation in Barry Levinson’s “The Survivor,” which had its world premiere at TIFF on Monday, is something different — because he morphs into Holocaust survivor Harry Haft from two different directions in the same film.
In scenes set in the latter stages of Haft’s life, Foster is doughy and sluggish, only slightly recognizable as the actor we know from films like “The Messenger” and “Leave No Trace.” In scenes set during World War II, when Haft was an inmate at the Auschwitz concentration camp, he’s skeletal and sinewy, with the real Foster just as hard to see. (He lost 62 pounds for those scenes.) It’s a haunted and haunting performance at the center of the most substantial movie that Levinson has made in years.
Written by Justine Juel Gillmer and based on the book “Harry Haft” by Haft’s son, Allan Scott Haft, spans decades and juggles styles as it merges past and present. The film mostly follows the post-war Haft, but he can’t escape the memories of what he went through and what he did, and neither can we: The past is so disturbing that it colors every moment of the film.
“The Survivor” opens with Haft walking on a Georgia beach in 1963, but it doesn’t stay there for long. The opening stretch is visceral and agitated: It fades to black-and-white for scenes of a boy and girl prior to World War II, then jumps into a boxing match where the postwar Haft is being pummeled in the ring but coming back for more. There are flashes of horrors from the camp, but everything is unsettled, horrifying but vague.
Slowly, the story emerges: Haft was in love with a young woman, Leah (Dar Zuzovsky) in Poland before the war. They were separated and sent to the camps – but in Belchatow, a work camp outside Auschwitz, Haft’s boxing skills caught the notice of a Nazi officer who made him a deal: If he would fight other prisoners for the entertainment of the guards, he’d receive special privileges. It’s a deal with the devil, to be sure, particularly when he realizes that the losers in these bouts will be immediately killed by the Nazis. But in Haft’s eyes it’s also an opportunity, however remote, to survive and be reunited with Leah.
And after he escapes in the final days of the war, makes his way to New York and starts a new life, Haft can’t forget about his lost love. “My mother, my father, my sister – I feel them inside, gone,” he says to a reporter played by Peter Sarsgaard. “Not her. She’s alive.”
As a professional boxer, Haft enjoys only middling success, and his ring style seems mostly built around his ability to take a punch. But he has a grand, foolhardy plan: If he becomes famous as the boxer who survived the concentration camps, maybe he can get a fight with the champ, Rocky Marciano. And if he fights Marciano, maybe he’ll get enough publicity for Leah to hear about him.
As his search for her goes on, aided by Miriam Wofsoniker (Vicky Krieps), a woman from the Displaced Persons Service, Harry becomes more and more desperate — and the relentless flashbacks supply more and more horrors: nude, emaciated bodies piled on carts, grueling boxing matches in front of leering guards, fights to the death as a form of weekend amusement.
In a way, the flashbacks are meant to become increasingly horrifying, but degree scarely registers when you’ve seen a pile of corpses in one of the earliest scenes. “The Survivor” needs to be an unpleasant movie to watch, because you don’t want to simply use Nazi atrocities to advance the plot. So Levinson doles them out, makes them shock and then ties them into the postwar Haft standing in a ring and enduring merciless beatings from opponents who eventually do include Marciano.
Danny DeVito shows up along the way to bring a touch of comedy but also some heart, but Foster is the centerpiece at every moment. Fiercely committed to a degree that’s almost scary, he’s not easy to watch, but it’s still hard to take your eyes off him. By the end, “The Survivor” finds itself reaching for sentimental moments, as you might expect in a film drawn from an account by Haft’s own family. In a way, it implies that he was able to find a measure of peace, even if Ben Foster’s haunted gaze doesn’t exactly go along with the program.