As the Nazi reign of terror swept across Europe, many people in various walks of life found ways of standing against it and making a difference. One such was Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, the Hungarian resistance hero who saved the lives of hundreds of his fellow Jews during the waning days of World War II. His life story has been loosely adapted into the current movie Walking With the Enemy, and while it’s an indifferent piece of filmmaking, I was glad to be able to learn about Rosenbaum and his work through it.
His fictional alter ego is named Elek Cohen (Jonas Armstrong), who in the spring of 1944 is a university student in Budapest enjoying the pleasures of life in the big city. However, when the Hungarian government invites the Nazis in, Elek and his best friend and fellow Jew Ferenc (Mark Wells) are forced to flee. Life in their village turns out to be no better, so Elek and Ferenc make their way back to the capital, taking refuge in the Swiss legation — a diplomatic office lower than an embassy but affording the same legal sanctuary — and encouraging other Hungarian Jews to do the same. Eventually, Elek and his friends disguise themselves in stolen SS uniforms and infiltrate the German ranks to learn what’s happening to the other Jews in the city who are disappearing into the countryside.
First-time director Mark Schmidt is also the founder and president of Liberty Studios, the new outfit that produced this film. Credit him with finding such a worthy story and being so committed to it, but his inexperience shows in his clumsy introductions of various Hungarian politicians and German military officials who affect the story, and the romantic plot between Elek and a pretty Jewish refugee (Hannah Tointon) comes out soggy. He includes the fascinating detail that the Swiss legation was called “The Glass House” because it had been converted from a glass factory, but he injects it into the script in a rather obvious way.
The movie does have some large-scale combat sequences that are pulled off convincingly, and Armstrong (whose previous work has mostly been on TV in his native Ireland) does a fair job of both portraying the fun-loving Elek before the war and barking out orders as Elek impersonates a Nazi so he can save more lives. Ben Kingsley, who narrated a 2003 documentary called Unlikely Heroes that was partially about Pinchas Rosenbaum, here turns up as Miklós Horthy, the regent of Hungary who lets the Nazis in because the alternative is submitting to Soviet rule. Of course, Kingsley starred in a far more powerful film about the Holocaust 20 years ago, but then this movie is hardly alone in not being as good as Schindler’s List. Like Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, Walking With the Enemy unearths a story of an ordinary man who fought a great evil in his own small way, and it may well lead you to want to learn more.
Walking With the Enemy
Starring Jonas Armstrong, Hannah Tointon, and Ben Kingsley. Directed by Mark Schmidt. Written by Kenny Golde. Rated PG-13.