One of the great untold stories of World War II is about Pinchas Rosenbaum, a Hungarian man who disguised himself as an SS officer and saved Jewish people like himself from being sent to death camps. The story of Rosenbaum is the inspiration for the new movie Walking with the Enemy, which arrives in theaters this weekend. In the film, Jonas Armstrong plays Elek Cohen, a character inspired by Rosenbaum who actively tries to save his community when his own family is sent to a concentration camp and he’s liberated from a work detail.
Playing the hero is nothing new for Armstrong, as he’s best known for playing the titular character in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Robin Hood. Having worked for years on British television, playing Elek in Walking with the Enemy is the actor’s biggest role yet, and probably the most complicated.
Last week, we sat down for an exclusive interview with Jonah to discuss his upcoming film. He spoke about the responsibility of history, the lessons of war, and just how strange it is to walk around in a Nazi SS uniform between takes.
Check it out below, and enjoy!
The movie is based, in part, on the life of Pinchas Rosenbaum, what did you know about him going into production and what kind of research did you do?
Jonas Armstrong: I did as much reading as was available, and with the director and producers there were long discussions about the man, and what he did, and how he operated. I also did a lot of research about the Nazi occupation at the end of the Second World War, and I went to see Budapest and visit the Glass House, and toured around the Jewish quarter of the city and immersed myself in it. I only had 3 or 4 weeks after getting the part, but I did as much as I could really.
Playing a character like Elek is quite different than your own life, so how did you get into the character?
JA: Well, he’s not your stereotypical leader. He wasn’t physically strong or imposing in any way, shape or form, and there wasn’t a sort of formulaic plan in the way he operated, it just sort of came upon him. You know, things just happened by happenstance and he just took his opportunities and had the gall and the bravery to just go with that. That’s what really appealed to me, he was an everyman. He wasn’t 6-foot-3 and packed full of muscles, and he wasn’t fantastic with weapons, but the bravado he showed was what drew me towards him.
What was the biggest challenge for you working on the film?
JA: It was a very emotionally demanding part. I mean, I’ve played leads before, but the emotion that this part demanded made it tough to go home at the end of the day, get my rest and be prepared the next day and be ready to perform. Other jobs that you’re on, you’re not on screen the whole time so your concentration may wane, but for this I had to be focused 100 per cent.
Given the subject matter, how do you deal with those heavy emotions and how do you give yourself a break from that at the end of the day?
JA: You’ve got to. They were long days, and at the end you’ve got to switch off, and go out and try to enjoy yourself. It’s nice not to talk about the job at the end of the day and just spend time with the people that you’re working with. And we were filming abroad, so it was nice to be able to take in another culture and be somewhere that isn’t home. I think that always helps my job as well.