Europe continues to expunge its guilt over the anti-Semitism of WWII in “My Best Enemy,” as a family of art-dealing Austrian Jews finds itself at the center of Hitler’s wartime schemes, courtesy of a coveted Michelangelo sketch the Fuhrer sees as a bargaining chip with Mussolini. The drawing makes a nifty MacGuffin, shifting our attention from concentration-camp atrocities to the Third Reich’s less publicized art confiscation efforts, while the sight of Moritz Bleibtreu comedically slipping in and out of SS uniform, along with Hollywood-style storytelling, should help “Enemy” find friends abroad.
Adapted from Paul Hengge’s book, director Murnberger’s entertaining, though conventionally told war story opens with a dramatic plane crash that grounds Victor Kaufmann (Bleibtreu) and childhood friend Rudi Smekal (Georg Friedrich) en route to Berlin, before flashing back to happier, prewar times, when the dynamic was quite different between the men. Though they always had one another’s back, housekeeper’s son Rudi resented the arrogance and privilege of Victor’s more glamorous life, coveting even g.f. Lena (Ursula Strauss).
According to the pic’s oversimplified view of history, Hitler offered ambitious low-class Aryans a chance to get ahead, and Rudi — who comes across increasingly sweaty and spineless as the pic unfolds — leapt at the opportunity. He swears his allegiance to the Reich, sends away for a Nazi uniform and betrays the Kaufmanns the instant war extends to Austria, telling his superiors about the Michelangelo sketch they keep hidden at home.
In a somewhat troubling reflection of the sneaky-Jew stereotypes that prevailed before the war, Kaufmann patriarch (Udo Samel) is too shrewd for the bumbling Nazi officers, having a pair of copies made that give the family the upper hand as soon as the sketch is seized and the Kaufmanns are shipped off to separate concentration camps. Until this point, Victor has been little more than a social dandy, capturing enough of the class conflict to explain — but by no means justify — how his lot found themselves in this position to begin with.
As soon as “Enemy” catches up with its opening, however, and Victor pulls injured Rudi from the burning wreckage of the plane, he becomes the film’s unambiguous hero, clever and more noble than the Germans who surround him. The pic’s tone changes, embracing the near-Shakespearean absurdity of a situation in which Victor manages to switch uniforms with Rudi, convincing his lock-step captors that he is the officer and Rudi the prisoner.
There’s a cheeky silliness to this scheme, in which circumstance and dumb luck conspire to put an ordinary man at the center of world-changing events. Here, the Axis agreement between Germany and Italy hinges on the missing Michelangelo. Though we never see Hitler himself (if we did, he’d no doubt be as satirically overdrawn as in “Inglourious Basterds”), all those who work under him come across as butt-covering buffoons.
Pic’s novelty, then, arises from the role of art seizure under the Third Reich, a subject that has generated a number of fascinating books and documentaries in recent years (among them “The Rape of Europa”). Although many art-related custody battles continue today, “Enemy” presents a more dramatically satisfying version of such events. Even when no one onscreen knows where the Michelangelo is hidden, helmer Murnberger ensures that auds are one step ahead, giving us a smug advantage over the characters — a key difference from Dan Brown’s art history thrillers, where we’re always struggling to keep up.
Though initial reaction to the film at the Berlin Film Festival seemed rather dismissive, writing off the story’s focus on a piece of art as frivolous in the face of larger atrocities, this twist-filled yarn actually makes for a welcome palliative amid so many self-serious WWII tales. Production values, especially composer Matthias Weber’s sweeping score and the overall attention to period detail, should make the pic easy to export.