By this point in time, it seems that every conceivable World War II story had been told – from South of the Border, made in 1939 about an American agent working to prevent Nazis from seizing control of Mexican oil fields, to this year’s Monuments Men, George Clooney’s ode to the men trying to preserve Europe’s cultural heritage. But still, nearly 70 years after it ended, the second world war continues to deliver material for Hollywood to sink its claws into.
Based on the somewhat amazing true story about ordinary Hungarians and their struggle to save the lives of thousands of Jews marked for death, Walking with the Enemy skates on old Hollywood charm of good guys versus bad guys, with both being easy to identify on sight.
Inspired by the real-life exploits of Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, a rabbi’s son from small-town Hungary, Walking with the Enemy shows the struggles of a small but determined group of young Jewish men and women who worked to save their people from the tightening insanity of the Nazis. Starting in 1944, as the Nazis see their territory under siege by the now relentless march of the Allies, German forces shore up what few strongholds they have left, like Hungary, which to this point had survived the war mostly unscathed thanks to a non-aggression pact with the Axis.
At the start of the movie, Elek Cohen (Jonas Armstrong) and his friends need only worry about impressing the girls at the local dance hall and dealing with the merely rude variety of anti-Semitism. But soon, the good times cease and the Nazis start to go whole hog in Hungary, rounding up young Jewish men and taking them to work camps, including Elek and his friend Ferenc (Mark Wells). Of course, the Nazis emphasize the work over the camp, and just in case you didn’t know this was bad news, the sight of three hanging workers greets Elek and the others when they arrive.
When an American air raid liberates Elek and Ferenc, they head home to their village and discover their families have been rounded up and sent to concentration camps. With nowhere else to go, they make their way to Budapest and become involved with the Jewish resistance, which initially means the forgery and distribution of Swiss passports, since the Germans won’t violate Swiss neutrality. But as the Nazis feel the heat from outside the Hungarian borders, the resistance turns to more unorthodox action. Posing as SS officers, Elek and friends try to save as many as they can from not just the death trains, but from impromptu firing squads as well.
Walking with the Enemy isn’t a movie about building to the big action moment, although there is a bit of that. The big set piece is very Enemy at the Gates, with Elek racing around to save as many Jewish civilians possible as the Russians invade Budapest. The scale of the destruction is impressive, and the action fairly competently and smoothly executed considering that this Mark Schmidt’s first feature. He also has restraint enough to not go hog wild with handheld camera work that seems to be the style for recording war zone action now.
Having said that though, it would be wrong to assume that this is an action-heavy war movie. In fact, it takes a while for the film to really get going, as the initial scenes drill into this Hungarian Rockwell kind of feeling that as Europe was burning, Hungary was a delightful abode where the kids could dance and you could shoot the breeze at work. I’m not knowledgeable enough to say if that was, or was not, the case, but it does take a while for the movie to deliver us where the real meat of the story is, Elek’s daring rescue of the local Jewish population. To boil this down to an elevator pitch, the movie works best when it’s focused on being Mission: Impossible – Schindler’s List.
When the film becomes a full-blown cat and mouse face-off between the increasingly fanatical Nazis and the increasingly desperate, though wily, Jewish resistance, it becomes its best self. Armstrong, perhaps best known for playing the titular hero in the BBC’s Robin Hood, leads the charge, strongly portraying Elek’s determination, his disappointment, and more than a shred of madness that can only come when wearing the uniform of the people trying to wipe out your race. It’s hard to say if Armstrong’s going over the top as Elek’s SS self, or whether or not he’s just throwing himself into the part, but for what the movie needs, it works.
The other marquee star of Walking with the Enemy is Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays Hungarian leader Regent Horthy. Kingsley’s part is rather divorced from the main action, illustrating the more macro geo-political situation in Hungary and the rather thin line they walked to maintain some shred of independence. Kingsley is quite austere and commanding as Horthy, but there is a disconnect between his portion and the main story. Another aspect to those scenes are key Nazi villains like Burn Gorman as Colonel Skorzeny, who has a scar on his face, so you know he’s extra evil. Charles Hubbell, meanwhile, has the unenviable task of playing Adolf Eichmann, who’s typically oily and slimy, the way Eichmann should always be played, I guess.
Still, I could have done without all that. The political machinations of both the Hungarians and the Nazis are only interesting so far as it gives us some idea of the circumstances. The stakes, however, are pretty obvious, and it seems like there’s a little too much ground work to get the audience to the place where the real story begins. It may not have been in the intent of the filmmakers, but the heart of this movie feels like it should be the edge-of-your-seat drama of the resistance saving people’s lives. Elek’s courtship of the lovely Hannah (Hannah Tointon) is sweet, and it certainly humanizes the character and gives him something to live for, but this movie flies when it’s focused on the fight.
Walking with the Enemy is a pretty standard war film, through and through. The story that inspired it is interesting, and there’s a solid half-hour in the middle where it seems like the script and the direction all come together to make this work, but we have to mine though a lot of sentimentality and politicking to get there. There seems to be a definite desire to put the story in its proper context, but the urgency seems to get lost in the minutia and over-plotting. Some prudish editing at the screenwriting stage would have helped, because there is definitely something very appealing about the story, and many of the actors involved. When it comes down to it, Walking with the Enemy is just a standard issue war movie telling an interesting story that’s never been filmed before. Unfortunately though, it’s not sure which of those two is more important.
Walking with the Enemy is a decent war movie that while enjoyable at times, doesn't do anything to break the mould.