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Walking with the Enemy

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Apr 25, 2014
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Jonas Armstrong stars in ’Walking with the Enemy’
Jonas Armstrong stars in ’Walking with the Enemy’  (Source:Liberty Studios)

As the Nazi reign of terror spreads to Hungary, a courageous young man named Elek Cohen (Jonas Armstrong) joins a semi-underground organization that resists the deportation and murder of Jews with the aid of Swiss nationals, printing and distributing papers of Swiss nationality to help shield Jewish victims.

That’s the thumbnail sketch of director and co-writer Mark Schmidt’s film "Walking With the Enemy," which is loosely based on the real actions undertaken by a Hungarian Jew named Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum. The film parallels history in some respects (the disused glass factory where the Swiss set up their efforts is depicted, as is the murder of the young hero’s family by the Nazis), but Rosenbaum’s own story is semi-fictionalized. What Rosenbaum did was to secure a uniform belonging to a homegrown hate group, the Hungarian Arrow Cross, and -- clothed in the uniform along with an assumed attitude of control and authority -- rescue Jews by diverting their transportation to safe locations.

The movie takes liberties for the same of drama, including dressing up the hero in the uniform of a Nazi SS officer -- the meanest of the mean. Cohen, the character roughly representing Rosenbaum, uses this uniform as his pass to the halls, fancy parties, and oubliettes of the invading Germans. He’s able to gather information and save a colleague who has fallen into the hands of the authorities; he’s not able to save others, including a group he’s forced to round up under the watchful eyes of the Nazis even as he poses in his stolen uniform.

In that passage, and a few others, the film touches upon the Holocaust’s true horrors. There’s another chilling moment when Cohen’s friend Ferenc, played by Mark Wells, makes his way home from a forced labor camp, only to discover that gentile townspeople have moved into his family’s house; this shock pairs nicely with a later scene showing the Nazis fleeing before the advancing Allies, leaving behind substantial manpower with orders to fight to the death while withdrawing in vans loaded with art and other precious objects. If Hitler had "willing executioners," as the title of a controversial tome posited a decade or so ago, their motivation was not entirely ideological: A large part of their murderous enthusiasm was pecuniary.

But "Walking With the Enemy" is less concerned with such nuances than with the aesthetic disconnect between handsome Cohen and his Nazi regalia, a uniform he strips off the body of a German officer he kills in order to protect his girlfriend Hannah (Hannah Tointon) from an episode of rape. The film takes on a Saturday serial tone, as Cohen and his colleagues pull off one escapade after another, often in defiance not only of the odds but common sense. Events are fashioned in a way that feels far too managed by the writers, and though the film does offer the occasional officer who wrestles with qualms over the frankly psychotic nature of the German mission to wipe out the Jewish people, the perpetrators of the Holocaust are generally shown as hardened agents of death and oppression. (This is especially true of Adolph Eichmann, as played by Charles Hubbell.)

By contrast, the members of the Hungarian government who are not simply toadies, such as Regent worthy (Ben Kinsley) and his son (Shane Taylor) are stolidly, monolithically heroic -- rather like Cohen himself, whose optimistic, even playful, nature is scarcely dented by the horrors unfolding all around him. A love story is, after all, a harder sell when your leading man isn’t perpetually charming and easy-going.

That’s what this film devolves into, regrettably enough, complete with a fake-out ending. The performances are as cardboard as the characters, and the wildly inconsistent accents are laughable. The portrayal of actual historic events is only undermined by a sense that the writers have taken a true story of remarkable heroism and given it the pulp fiction treatment.

If translated into a non-specific future time and place, with the hero transmuted into an American teenaged girl, "Walking With the Enemy" would fit right in with "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent." If respected as hard-edged history, this might have been a film with some of the power of "Schindler’s List." Alas, "Walking with the Enemy" falls in between, and thus plummets into the gap.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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