By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — As the title indicates, real-life heroism and improbable impersonation are the key elements of this fictionalized biographical drama.
Pity, then, that this stirring story couldn’t have been less simplistically and more artfully told.
We’re in war-torn Hungary during the German occupation in 1944, under the command of Adolf Eichmann (Charles Hubbell) as the climax of World War II approaches. Thousands of Hungarian citizens are forced underground or into ghettos.
Inspired by but deviating from a true story, Walking with the Enemy addresses an act of desperation that would eventuate into a miraculous masquerade.
Irish-born Brit Jonas Armstrong stars as university student Elek Cohen (based on the real-life Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum), a Hungarian Jew who has features that allow him to put on a dead man’s uniform and impersonate a Nazi SS officer, allowing him to eventually save the lives of many of his countrymen.
He escapes from a labor camp and returns home, hoping to organize a resistance, only to find that the Germans have sent his family off to Auschwitz, and that his family’s house and the homes of their neighbors have been taken and given to non-Jewish townsfolk.
Elek does manage to reconnect with Hannah Schoen, played by Hannah Tointon, a young woman he is strongly drawn to whom he met prior to the Occupation.
And he discovers an operation in Budapest where a Swiss diplomat (William Hope) is printing official-appearing documents –- Swiss passports — offering government protection of Jews.
So Elek puts on the Nazi officer’s uniform and helps distribute the certificates.
Ben Kingsley — a consummate actor who is more or less wasted in this role, even if he does provide the cast with a “name” — is Miklos Horthy, the Regent of Hungary, whose loyalty the Nazis have come to question, as Horthy struggles with the pressure created by not only the aggressiveness of both Nazi Germany and communist Russia, but also the political entanglements of his son, who faces possible execution.
As the grimly determined Cohen gains confidence in his ability to role-play and pass himself off as an SS officer, he keeps taking the deception further, mingling with SS officers, proceeding to places where Jewish men, women, and children are being rounded up, and using his authority to undercut orders and march the Jewish victims to less dangerous assignments, hopefully escaping extermination.
First-time writer, producer, and director Mark Schmidt wrote the story that formed the basis for Kenny Golde’s screenplay, which mixes suspenseful thriller elements with political drama as it explores the effects of the war on scrambling Hungarian citizens.
But the film is wildly uneven. Although the subject matter has import and gravitas, much of the donning-Nazi-costumes and narrow-escape footage registers as much less than convincing, sometimes presenting a level of broadness that recalls “Hogan’s Heroes,” even as we remind ourselves of the overall actuality of the events being depicted.
The film still manages to hold our attention, but as the two-hours-plus epic proceeds, our incredulity begins to take up residence in the front of our minds.
Armstrong, who has movie star written all over him, sells the central charade more forcefully than his director deserves, and the script houses far too much awkward history-lesson exposition that should instead be human conversation.
But the film’s ambitiousness alone gains it membership in the respectable-Holocaust-drama genre, with echoes of Schindler’s List (the subject matter, particular images, and the presence of Ben Kingsley) both lending the film a bit of reflected glory and underscoring its obvious limitations.
So we’ll impersonate 2 stars out of 4. Walking with the Enemy offers a real-life tale that deserves to be told. And deserves to be told better.