Barry Levinson’s biographical drama film “The Survivor” is a touching piece of work about mankind’s most shameful act in history, the Holocaust. It is based on the real biography of Hertzko Haft, a Polish man who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp and went on to become a boxer in the United States for a brief period of time. Although “The Survivor” does not follow every part of Haft’s survival, it also does not make itself too much about the Holocaust, sticking only to the man’s story. This works in favor of the work in most cases, and overall, “The Survivor” is a thought-provoking watch.
‘The Survivor’ Plot Summary
The film picks up in 1949, four years after WWII ended, and Hertzko Haft is now living in New York. Hertzko, better known as Harry in the English-speaking country, earns his living as a boxer, but his past life is still intricately linked with his identity, as his introduction before a fight includes the phrases “Pride of Poland” and “Survivor of Auschwitz.” Harry himself is also not keen on forgetting his past either, as he regularly visits a social help agency that reconnects people with their lost relatives and friends after the war to get any information about the whereabouts of his beloved Leah. The agency is unable to help with her search as there has been no trace of the woman yet. During a heated argument at the agency, he meets a young woman named Miriam Wofsoniker, who shows sympathy and interest in the man. Harry realizes that instead of him searching for Leah, he should try to make his name noticeable somehow, so that Leah could see it and come to New York. The only way for Harry to do this is to try and arrange a boxing match against renowned boxer Rocky Marciano, which would be advertised in the daily newspapers. But it is not an easy task to reach Marciano, as Harry’s own agent says, for his record in the ring is still not good enough to convince a big talent like Marciano. During this time, an American journalist named Emory Anderson had approached Harry about a possible story about Harry’s past, and specifically about how he survived Auschwitz. Despite his brother’s insistence on never revealing about the events that made him survive the Holocaust, and also his own initial inhibitions against it, Harry finally sits down with the journalist and briefly tells him about his past.
Major Spoilers Ahead
How Had Hertzko Haft Actually Survived The Holocaust?
During his time in the concentration camp, one day, Hertzko struck a Nazi guard in the face after being insulted and attacked. Although such an act would have gotten Hertzko instantly killed, one Nazi officer actually took notice of him and instead met with him in private. The officer, Dietrich Schneider, trained him to fight in a ring and then made him fight other prisoners. Although Hertzko thought that the fights were for entertaining the Nazi officials only, he soon learned that it was a cruel and vile way of eliminating Jews as well, as the losers in the fights were immediately killed. Anderson publishes this story, with seemingly his own fictional touch, and Harry’s past of having indirectly killed brothers of his own religion and misfortune, gets sensationally popular. While his own Jewish community, including his brother, are terribly angered by Harry’s revealing of his past, this works in favor of the man as Rocky Marciano agrees to a fight. Even during his preparations, Harry now remembers his days of surviving inside the camp, as he beat one prisoner after another, pushing all of them effectively towards death. But he had no choice either, as Schneider had made it very clear from the beginning that the only rule of the fight was the survival of the winner, meaning that Hertzko would be shot dead too if he lost a fight. As his undefeated record kept growing, the Nazis organized more fights for him, sometimes even with non-Jewish prisoners of boxing or fighting fame. The Nazis would place bets on these fights, and Schneider himself grew his reputation and wealth rapidly with Hertzko’s undefeated run. One evening during this time, the man got the opportunity to strike down or shoot dead Dietrich Schneider, as the two were alone in an unguarded part of the camp, but Hertzko’s fear of what might follow and Schneider’s (the officer had quickly realized that Hertzko was pointing a gun at him) insistence on his helplessness made him not act. It is not only that Hertzko had no way of escaping the camp after killing Schneider and would be instantly shot dead, but also, by now, Schneider remains the only reason for his survival. Had there been no fights organized by the Nazi officer, Hertzko might have been gassed to death. However, despite not harming Schneider that evening, the officer’s atrocious and inhuman words, saying that Jews were in such a state because they never fought back, lived on in Hertzko’s mind.
Sometime later, nearing the end of the war, during a death march through village fields, Hertzko managed to run away from his group and the Nazis after a guard killed a prisoner and caused a commotion. Running into a forested area, he is soon chased down by Schneider, who fights him at first, and then tries to portray himself as Hertzko’s savior and the only reason that the man is alive. Hertzko hardly pays any attention to such drivel, as he shoots the officer dead and flees the scene quickly towards his own freedom. It was from there that he made his way to the United States, seeking refuge and building up a new life. However, he was unable to reconnect with Leah, with whom he had spent a short but extremely loving and caring time just before being taken to Auschwitz. He had tried every way to establish some connection with her while on the inside—he would ask the women sent to him as prostitutes by Schneider if they knew about Leah and would give them messages for her if they ever met her. But none of it worked, and his beloved Leah remained lost to Hertzko even after coming to the US.
Meanwhile, back in the present, Harry’s boxing match with Marciano garners a lot of public interest, but that too does not bring him any closer to Lea. In the match, he is heavily beaten by the more skilled boxer, and right after the match, Harry decides to put an end to his boxing career. He confides in his brother that he now firmly believes that Lea is dead, and that he feels an empty void inside. Soon after, however, he develops a close relationship with Miriam, who had visited him prior to the match and provided him with support with her presence during the fight. She too, had been engaged before the war, but her fiancée never returned from the war. Finally, Harry asks Miriam to marry him, acknowledging and respecting the memories of their individual lost lovers. Miriam agrees, and the two settle down to start a family. Many years later, in 1963, Harry and Miriam run a grocery store in New York and live with their three children. However, he is still haunted by his dark memories, one in particular that he shares with Miriam—during his fighting days in Auschwitz, one day, he had to face a very good friend of his in the ring. Although Hertzko was very unwilling to hurt his friend, the friend insisted that he kill him in the ring rather than have the Nazis kill him as the loser of the fight. Hertzko chanted the sacred Kaddish while choking his friend to death inside the ring. Miriam still tries her best to help Harry with his memories, to try and make him feel less guilty for his actions of the past, but Harry seems to grow more distant from her, and grows sterner towards his children, to whom he has still not said anything about his past. Then one day, the journalist Emory Anderson comes to his shop and hands him a piece of paper with the address and contact details of Leah, who supposedly now lives in Tybee Island, Georgia.
‘The Survivor’ Ending Explained: Do Harry And Leah Finally Get To Meet?
Harry drives to Tybee Island with his family, and after putting them up at a hotel, he wants to set out in search of Leah. Although Harry claims that their visit to Georgia is just a family vacation, Miriam clearly understands that it must be in search of Leah that her husband has come here. Harry takes his eldest son, Alan, along with him to Leah’s address, where she now lives with her husband, Michael, and their children. Harry had already had a word with Michael over the telephone, and now he sits with Leah for a private reunion. The two share about their individual spouses and their love for them, and then Leah reveals that in the darkest days inside the concentration camp, it was her memories with Harry that kept her going, and made her survive the ordeal. She thanks Harry for having loved her, and admits having seen the advertisement of Harry’s boxing match against Marciano, but only on the next morning after her marriage with Michael. Harry also tearfully tells her of all his efforts in searching for her and how he always believed that he would meet her again. However, he never thought that the meeting would be to say goodbye, as Leah now suffers from some incurable ailment, possibly cancer. Harry and Alan then leave the house, and inside their car, Harry shows his son a photograph of young Leah, introducing her as someone who helped him survive. Till now, the man had been overly stern with his son and had kept his past away from him. Now Harry promises to tell Alan everything about his life, and begins by admitting that he had been in a concentration camp. They then return to their family at the hotel beach, where Harry sits down with Miriam and makes up with her. As the film fades to black, onscreen texts inform us that Harry and Miriam lived on together till Harry’s death many years later.
There have been plenty of attempts in cinema history to talk about or present the sufferings of prisoners and survivors of the Holocaust. “The Survivor” makes use of this backdrop, but focuses entirely on telling the story of its protagonist. What works most in the film is the small gradual depths and changes in relationships that go on among the characters. Perhaps Hertzko Haft’s memories of suffering and grief are not too different from the countless victims of the Holocaust, but it is the story of his relationships with those around him that “The Survivor” portrays, and very successfully. A scene towards the end where Harry promises young Alan that he would tell him everything about his life strikes a special chord, as in reality, it was then Alan who grew up to write and publish a biography about his father’s survival at Auschwitz. An effective filmmaking style and a brilliant acting performance from Ben Foster in the lead role make “The Survivor” a truly emotional and thoughtful watch.
“The Survivor” is a 2022 Drama Biopic film directed by Barry Levinson.