Earnest, stiff and well-meaning, Mark Schmidt's Walking With the Enemy is an oddly endearing movie -- one with a story so powerful and inspiring that pointing out its obvious flaws seems uncharitable, if not rude. One can almost imagine the filmmakers behind this inspired-by-true-events story of heroism in Nazi-occupied Hungary conceding the minor points: Sure, some of the acting is wooden and the escapes are so narrow as to strain credulity, but what of the larger issues? What of the lives that were saved? What of the courage this man displayed? What of the lessons we might take from this man's story?
"This man" is Elek Cohen (Jonas Armstrong, a charismatic actor bound for bigger -- or at least more Hollywoody -- things) who is based on Pinchas Tobor Rosenbaum, a Hungarian Jew who, near the end of World War II, escaped from a labor camp and disguised himself in the uniform of the Arrow Cross, a Hungarian fascist group aligned with Hitler. For months Rosenbaum risked his life by rounding up Jewish families, sometimes at gunpoint, and delivering them to a factory where the Swiss had established a safe house. Only when the Jews were delivered into freedom did they realize that their abductor was their savior.
The change of name signals that other details have been changed as well, and so the uniform Elek puts on is not that of a relatively obscure Hungarian faction but that of a dead SS officer. And he engages in more derring-do than Rosenbaum probably did -- he's more like a superhero waging his own private war against the occupying oppressors than a low-key operative ferrying Jews to safety. Walking With the Enemy is not a movie that is afraid to embrace cliche -- people die dramatically in the arms of loved ones, time and time again Elek narrowly avoids detection (and therefore summary execution) and there are times when, in order to continue his masquerade, he must stand by while women and children are shot dead in front of his eyes.
Still, most of the acting is passable to good -- though be warned, Ben Kingsley's role is smaller than you might guess from the trailer or the poster -- and director Schmidt keeps things moving. Production values are generally high and the authentic locations -- much of the film was shot in Romania -- contribute to an overall sense of quality.
Walking With the Enemy is perhaps a little overreaching in that it strains for epicness. It's not as artful as Agnieszka Holland's Europa, Europa, Roman Polanski's The Pianist, or Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, films to which it's sure to be compared. But if it's not the equal of these remarkable movies, it's a lot better than most mindless Hollywood product.
MovieStyle on 05/30/2014
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