Walking with the Enemy

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Walking with the Enemy
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Until 1944, Hitler’s Final Solution for the Jews had not been implemented in their Hungarian ally’s homeland. But, the war is turning against the Nazis and the notorious Adolph Eichmann arrives to begin the deportation of the Jews from Budapest. One young man, Elek Cohen, sees a chance to save some of those destined to die by “Walking with the Enemy”

This “inspired by true events” historical drama is two films in one. One is the story of Elek, a young man who watches the world as he knew it come crashing down around him. The other is the fairly accurate telling of the political drama of the fall of Hungary to the Nazis and the deportation of the Jews of that country to the Hitler’s death camps.

“Walking…” works best with the political drama. The heroics of the Hungarian people whose mission it was to save the lives of thousands of Jews from Nazi gas chambers is a fascinating slice of history. The country’s regent, Miklos Horthy (Ben Kingsley, defied Hitler and, with the help of the Swiss government, provided passports to allow many of those destined to die, to live.

Elek’s story is more by the numbers as the young, Aryan-looking man commits murder to save his girlfriend Hannah (Hannah Tointon) from Nazi SS rapists. This act leads to his donning an SS uniform to help those Jews being rounded up for deportation. During his journey to his people, we meet both the one good German, Wehrmacht Colonel Weber (Karl Backus) and a whole slew of bad Nazis. (You can easily tell who is a bad Nazi: look for the arrogant, cold-blooded, sneering guy (usually blond) with an SS insignia on his collar.)

The black and white, good versus bad story is almost simplistic as Elek repeatedly puts his life on the line to save others. The incidents of Elek’s heroism are given heavy-handed treatment and border, at times, on parody. Still, his is an inspirational story of bravery and heroism given Hollywood license. Production is at a level above the rest of the film, depicting the horrors of war and of the Holocaust with sincerity. “Walking with the Enemy” works best for us history nuts who can get by the film’s clichés. I give it B.

Films purporting to be 'based on' or 'inspired by' true stories are, of course, going to take dramatic liberties, often because of a need to condense multiple characters into one or to rearrange or punch up events for dramatic reasons.  But the license taken by director Mark Schmidt and screenwriter Kenny Golde in repackaging the life story of Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, the Hungarian Jew who outsmarted Nazis in his home country to save hundreds of lives by masquerading as a member of the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Nazi Party), goes so far out on a limb that it snaps.  "Schindler's List" this isn't.

Instead of telling Rosenbaum's tale, the filmmakers have reinvented him as Elek Cohen (Jonas Armstrong), a Jew who escapes from a Nazi labor camp, returns to his home town and discovers his family is gone and neighbors aren't exactly welcoming.  In his and his friend Ferenc's (Mark Wells, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe") search for Jozsef Greenberg (Simon Kunz, "Trance"), he runs into Hannah (Hannah Tointon, BBCA's 'The Hour'), a pretty woman he had met at a dance and learns she lives in the same, yellow-starred building.  Her uncle, Carl Lutz (William Hope, "Dark Shadows"), is protected by the Swiss consul and is running a printing press for faux Swiss passports which many see as there only hope of survival.

When Hannah's followed home by two Nazi soldiers whose intentions are very clear, Elek murders them to save her from rape, burying the bodies in the basement.  When Ferenc is picked up by the Nazis while distributing forged papers, Elek decides to exhume them, costume himself as an SS officer, and go in to save the lad.  This begins a campaign of impersonation, Elek marching into tense situations demanding Jews be handed over into his custody.

But "Walking with the Enemy" would have us believe that Elek could bark that paperwork was 'not necessary' when the Nazi obsession with documentation is a well known fact or that he could waltz into an SS officers club and within one minute be regaled with tales of concentration camps far and wide in the presence of champagne drinking women.  In a film about the saving of lives, many are treated perfunctorily - before Hannah's attempted rape, her father has been murdered in front of her eyes, but as soon as the threat has been dispatched Elek informs us that everything is now OK, papa's corpse in the next room forgotten.

Elek's story is cross cut with the political travails of Hungarian Regent Horthy (Ben Kingsley) and his son Miklos (Shane Taylor), caught between Stalin and Hitler.  But a coup ends this strand, which is far more intriguing than Elek's credulity-straining heroics, around the movie's midpoint.

The film has the earnest straightforward manner of a 1980's television miniseries, however careful to period detail.  Intentions are clearly fine, but execution is naive.

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