“You can’t win. All you can do is survive it.”
That’s what Hertzko “Harry” Haft was told when he somehow managed to get a fight with the famous Rocky Marciano. And it’s probably true. Harry knows he doesn’t have the speed or power or training of that fighter.
But survival … survival is one thing that he knows well.
He survived Auschwitz. He survived a bloody escape. And he survived scores and scores of win-or-be-killed fights in the camps: many back-to-back over the course of a full day.
That was his price of survival back then—to entertain the drunk and cheering German officers by keeping his emaciated body upright and beating down other inmates in ring fights.
It was horrible. Inhuman. But it was necessary. And there was always one thing that drove him to endure: a searing desire to once again, against all probability, find a way back to his beloved Leah. He saw her dragged off in a truck full of Nazi soldiers. And that image never fades, never changes in his mind’s eye.
Even after somehow making it away from that brutal Holocaust, Harry’s need to find Leah—his belief that she’s still out there somewhere—does not waver. Every day he goes to the local Jewish survivor’s office. Every day there is no information.
That’s why he continues to box. Maybe he will win. Maybe his picture will be in the paper, and maybe word of it will find its way to Leah or someone who knows her. This Marciano fight is his greatest chance.
He may be battered. He may be broken. But she may somehow hear of it. And that will be survival enough for Harry Haft.
Later in his life, Harry tells the story of a man who took the cap of another inmate in Auschwitz because the German officers would shoot you if you showed up without one. The other man was subsequently shot. “Was he wrong to take the cap?” Harry asks.
That moral dilemma is used to illustrate Harry’s own choices while in the death camp. Was it right for him to beat down other men for the inhuman entertainment of their vile captors? Was it right to do whatever it took to stay alive? The Survivor doesn’t directly answer those queries: It leaves it to us to think through while showing us the great burden of guilt Harry carried for the choices he made.
The concentration camp isn’t the only prison our protagonist endures. Harry is a man who’s captive, at least partially, to his own violent nature. He’s also a brusque and difficult individual. But we see him eventually resolve some of his emotional issues and reach out to the people who care about him. Miriam—a woman who helps him try to track down Leah—is one of those caring and giving people. And her openness helps Harry in his healing process.
While in Auschwitz, Harry uses what little clout he has with Obersturmfuhrer Schneider, Harry’s German officer “owner,” to keep his brother, Peretz, from the gas chambers. Later Peretz asks his always tormented brother: “Six million of our people are dead, Hertzko, why did you survive if not to live?”
Later in life, Harry marries and raises a family. And eventually he admits to his eldest son that he knows he’s been a bit tough on him. “When you were born, all I wanted was that you would not have to make the choices I have,” Harry tells the boy before telling him of his impossible choices in Auschwitz.
This film centers around the atrocities and hatred aimed at Jews during and after WWII. But it doesn’t have many spiritually focused comments to make.
In one scene, however, Harry and Miriam step to the threshold of a synagogue. Harry hesitates, stating that he doesn’t have much use for religion or God after all he’s been through. Miriam understands but states the value of praying and asking God questions about life. “Do you get answers?” Harry asks. “Maybe, sometimes,” she tells him. “Well, this God doesn’t answer me,” he says. To that Miriam says: “Keep asking. And in the meantime, you can talk to me.”
Harry proclaims to have an inner spiritual sense that assures him that Leah is still alive, even though it also tells him that his family members are dead.
During a fight in the concentration camp, Harry is forced to battle a friend who begs Harry to kill him (rather than let the Germans do so) and then say Kaddish over him. Reluctantly Harry gives in, batters his friend and says the Hebrew prayer over him as he chokes the man to death.
Years later, Harry’s son practices the Hebrew prayers. A Jewish woman sings God Bless America in Yiddish, and a group of teary-eyed people stand in respect for both their new home and their God who allowed them to survive and be there.
A Black sparring partner cries out “let’s go Jew boy!” And Harry flashes back to the camps when Germans cried out that he was a “Jew animal”. A trainer talks to Harry about the Samson story in the Bible. And a different (Jewish) trainer wishes Harry well with: “I wish you blessings and success.”
Harry tells a joke involving a grandmother and God. Harry eats sandwiches with several other men, and one of them notes that Harry is eating ham. “That’s OK, God doesn’t pay much attention to me anyway,” Harry replies.
Schneider treats his prize performer with the services of a prostitute. The woman helps wash Harry while he sits in a tub. The two of them stand up and embrace, and both are naked. (We see Harry’s emaciated upper body and backside as well as her backside, bare back and breast.) Schneider watches the pair through a peephole in the door.
Harry marries later in life and he begins to undress his wife in their hotel room until memories of the above episode torment and immobilize him.
Though not designed to be stimulating in any way, we do see fully naked corpses of both men and women stacked on wagons and then picked up and tossed into flaming trenches. In the midst of this, an inmate recognizes his wife among the corpses and breaks down while clutching her dead, naked form.
During a scene later in Harry’s life, he walks through a beach populated by men and women in bathing suits. (The women all wear one-piece suits.)
There is some pugilistic pummeling in the mix here, as Harry fights after the war in organized American bouts. But that heavy fisted battering is almost tame when compared to the montage of raw battles between Harry and other emaciated prisoners in the concentration camps.
In those battles the men flail, tear and pound at each other for their very lives (knowing that the loser will be shot). The fights are brutal and messy and sometimes presented as stretching on for hours. One of Harry’s fights with a French boxer, for instance, stretches on through the day until evening before Harry, staggering, spitting blood and covered in gore, can prevail.
We also see German officers abuse the men in the camps, hitting them with fists and rifle stocks. We see piles of corpses burned. Harry gets his hands on Schneider’s gun after a fight in the camps and points it at the German officer. But Schneider simply smiles and asks if Harry really wants to, “kill the man standing between you and the gas?”
During an escape attempt, running men are gunned down and one is executed with a bullet to the forehead. One running inmate grabs a gun and shoots a fallen German officer in the face several times.
In his post-war life, Harry tends to be short tempered, and he repeatedly grabs people by the collar, threatening violence, when he grows impatient or frustrated.
A half-dozen f-words are joined by three s-words and several uses each of the words “a–” and “d–n.” God’s and Jesus’ names are misused three times total (two of those combining God with “d–n”)
Both men and women smoke cigarettes throughout the film. We see people drinking beer and booze at a bar and at a wedding reception. And Harry drinks some sort of alcoholic beverage with Schneider after one of his matches. Harry is given some sleeping pills so he can rest on the night before a big fight.
A man urinates just off camera. And several men joke about the ancient contents of an old outhouse. Obersturmfuhrer Schneider tells Harry that he never hated Jews, but that he believes life demands that he either conquer or serve, become a “hammer or an anvil.” “All great empires are built off the destruction of other peoples,” he proclaims.
Someone spits in Harry’s beer after hearing about what he did in the camps.
At first glance this may look like a boxing movie: the story of a fighter who made it from a horrible imprisonment in Auschwitz to the biggest fight of his life.
But that’s not really what this movie is about at all.
This is a story—based on the true saga of boxer Harry Haft—of searing agony, intense guilt, mind-numbing grief and, as the title would suggest, a man’s lifelong battle for survival. Harry Haft used his singular passion—a longing to somehow find and return to the woman he loved—as a catalyst to push and pound his way through every hellish situation he faced.
As you might imagine, that makes for a very painful movie. It’s also a wincingly bloody and at times profane one, and it has more nudity and sensuality than you might expect. But thanks to lead Ben Foster’s fiercely excellent performance—a literal body transforming effort on par with Robert De Niro’s work on Raging Bull and Tom Hanks in Cast Away—the movie becomes immersive and moving.
The Survivor is not designed to impart spiritual lessons, per se. But it definitely has its own story-driven way of reminding adult viewers of faith that even in the worst of situations we should endure (2 Corinthians 4:16-18) and cling to a hope for grace.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.