Film Review: Walking With the Enemy 

The story of Hungarian resistance to the Nazis will have to be better told another time.

click to enlarge Pinchas Rosenbaum deserves better. - COURTESY PHOTO.
  • Courtesy photo.
  • Pinchas Rosenbaum deserves better.

Walking With the Enemy | C-

The heroic efforts of Pinchas Rosenbaum and the Hungarian Jews who rebelled against the Nazis during World War II deserves far better than Walking With the Enemy. First-time director Mark Schmidt and his nine screenwriters offer only a clumsy, overwrought melodrama. 

Walking With the Enemy is one of those cinematic conundrums critics face: encountering a should-be-told story in a should-be-avoided movie. On the one hand, the actions of Rosenbaum (renamed Elek Cohen here) and his compatriots refute the notion that Jews went willingly to their slaughter. On the other, Schmidt’s movie is plotted like a second-rate soap opera crossed with a superhero action movie and features dialog that can only be described as cringe-worthy.

Here’s a quick sample:

“Ach, practicing your German again, Elek?”

“Colonel, your reputation precedes you.”

“Der Fuhrer vill be pleased.” 

“Ve haf our orders!”

You know those Internet phrase generators? Half the dialogue in Walking With the Enemy sounds like it came from “Talk like a WWII Character.” Where’s Hogan when you need him?

Shot with all the artistry of a History Channel miniseries, the first half-hour of Schmidt’s film is an awkwardly paced, prolonged setup of pre-Nazi Hungary. World War II is entering its last year and the German-allied nation has managed to mostly sit on the sidelines. But with Stalin closing in from the east and Adolf Eichmann determined to escalate his plans for Jewish genocide, Miklos Horthy (Ben Kingsley), the Regent of Hungary, finds himself between a political rock and a hard place. This means that everyday Jews like Elek Cohen (played by Robin Hood’s Jonas Armstrong) now have a target on their backs. First Hungary’s young men are called away for mandatory labor in support of the German war effort, and then their families are escorted onto trains bound for Hitler’s concentration camps.

From casual bigotry at the local dance hall to German occupation to escaping a work camp, to falling in with Swiss diplomats who use the “Glass House” embassy as a sanctuary for fugitive Jews, it takes an awfully long time for Walking With the Enemy to get to the point of Elek Cohen’s story. About an hour or so in, our hero is forced to defend his love interest from being raped by a pair of SS officers. Killing the men ends up becoming an opportunity for true heroism. When a compatriot is caught by members of the Arrow Cross militia (Hungarian fascists allied with the Nazis), he dons the SS uniform to rescue him from their clutches. This inspires him to pose as a member of the Gestapo and save yet more Jews from the firing squads. Much like a superhero, he infiltrates the ranks of the enemy and roams the streets of Budapest, swooping in just in time to halt a massacre. These acts of daring are countered with cutaway subplots in which Eichmann twirls his mustache and Kingsley (whose mere presence elevates every scene he’s in) wrings his hands. 

Unfortunately, Elek isn’t so much a person as a cardboard cutout of a hero. Whenever he isn’t saving Jews, he’s forced into painfully clichéd melodrama and cloying sentimentality: delivering a button-nosed orphan to the local convent, watching his best friend martyred, and expressing his love (and misgivings) to his girlfriend, Hannah (British actress Hannah Tointon struggling to maintain a Hungarian accent). Schmidt stages the wartime action competently enough and makes good use of his Budapest locations, but anytime there’s a lull in the fighting, the movie turns to mush.

Emotionally obvious, clumsily acted and laughably scripted, Walking With the Enemy may be well-intentioned, but its execution comes up desperately short. There is little doubt that Hungary’s role in World War II deserves to be told. Hopefully, a worthier group of filmmakers will someday tell it. 

Walking With the Enemy is now playing. It is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 126 minutes.

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