A little-known tale of Jewish resistance during the final days of WWII gets tackled with appreciable ambition and blunt, sporadic emotional force in “Walking With the Enemy.” First-time director Mark Schmidt’s fictionalized account of the heroic travails of Pinchas Rosenbaum, who boldly donned the garb of the enemy in order to save thousands of Hungarian Jews, tells a pretty remarkable story on an impressively low-budget, action-packed canvas, though its attempts to fill in the political-historical context too often lapse into stiff, waxworks-style re-creation. Made with obvious passion and drive, but also a nagging predilection for Holocaust-drama cliches, the picture can count on a certain degree of theatrical interest based on its subject matter and inspirational thrust, en route to finding a homevid audience.
One of several harrowing experiences recounted in the 2003 documentary “Unlikely Heroes,” Rosenbaum’s story feels as if it’s being squeezed into earnestly conventional parameters from the get-go, starting with a de rigueur scene of encroaching anti-Semitism in which his fictional stand-in, Elek Cohen (Jonas Armstrong), and his friends are ejected from a nightclub. It’s the spring of 1944, and Hungary, although part of an Axis alliance, has until now largely resisted Hitler’s efforts to deport its Jews en masse. But with the war’s end in sight, Germany’s determination has only intensified, and soon the Nazis are marching on Budapest, where Elek, his family and friends are stripped of their liberties, subjected to a curfew and forced to wear yellow stars.
While his rabbi father (Richard Albrecht) turns a blind eye to the horror on the horizon, Elek shows unusual pluck, alertness and foresight early on; he’s also damn lucky, narrowly managing to escape death at a labor camp, but not before becoming singularly acquainted with the ruthlessness of the enemy. Returning to a Budapest now occupied by SS soldiers and members of a newly empowered, anti-Semitic Hungarian extremist group called the Arrow Cross Party, Elek is shaken but also emboldened by his recent death-defying experience, and when his friend Hannah (Hannah Tointon) is nearly raped in front of her family by two SS soldiers, he springs into startling, decisive action. It’s a brutal scene for a number of reasons, and when it’s over, the two soldiers are dead — and, crucially, Elek has a uniform that, along with his perfect command of German and considerable chutzpah, will enable him to pass for a Nazi.
In real life, Rosenbaum acquired an Arrow Cross uniform, not an SS one, and under far less dramatically cooked-up circumstances. Still, given the relative paucity of Jewish resistance sagas in the Holocaust-movie canon (Quentin Tarantino’s mad revenge fantasy “Inglourious Basterds” notwithstanding), it’s undeniably stirring — if at times credulity-straining — to see Elek putting on his disguise, striding into tense situations, ordering officers to hold their fire and leading numerous about-to-be-executed Jews to safety, while barking at the puzzled Arrow Cross officers who dare to question his actions. Crucial to the success of Elek’s operation are Hannah, with whom he quickly falls in love, and the Glass House, a shelter where numerous Jews take refuge on the false pretext of having Swiss citizenship.
Kenny Golde’s screenplay (based on a story by Schmidt and producer Randy Williams) occasionally shifts away from Elek to focus on the Hungarian regent Miklos Horthy, a controversial figure whose complicated legacy — including his vain efforts to keep Germany at arm’s length and protect Hungary’s Jews — remains the subject of much debate. That Horthy is played here by Ben Kingsley (who narrated “Unlikely Heroes”) more or less sums up the film’s sympathetic view of the character, presented here as a leader who, caught between two powerful opposing forces — the Germans and the Soviets — mistakenly decided that Hitler was the lesser of two evils. The Fuehrer himself is happily never shown, though we do see a few too many of his underlings like Adolf Eichmann (Charles Hubbell) and Otto Skorzeny (Simon Kunz), all murderously stiff-backed and prone to barking threats like “Non-compliance with Berlin is treason!”
The decision to flesh out this complicated background is admirable, even as it exposes the essentially plodding nature of Schmidt’s approach while padding the film out to an overlong 126 minutes. In similar fashion, Elek’s story — which can be modestly engrossing at times, unwatchably brutal at others — never quite rises above the script’s weakness for convention, with the dialogue in particular veering toward the declarative and expository. (“This piece of paper is someone’s life,” “Thank God the bullet only grazed you,” etc.) It concludes in a welter of melodramatic coincidences and near-death encounters that leave no doubt about the protagonist’s heroism, though how much resemblance it bears to Rosenbaum’s actual experience is another matter.
The performances are a mixed bag; Armstrong isn’t particularly nuanced in the role of the brazen, courageous Elek, but he supplies a strong rooting interest and summons the requisite Teutonic viciousness whenever he’s called upon to impersonate a Nazi, which is alarmingly often. Despite an overactive score, the production is solid in its marshalling of resources and setpieces — tanks, troops, battle sequences, bombed-out buildings — that wouldn’t seem out of place in a much more expensive, studio-financed project.