Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Walking with the Enemy [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing

Historia y Cine (J.L. Urraca Casal) review*
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review

Background Materials:
     ShalomMagazine.com (M. Michelson) article about Hungarian WW II era Jewish Resistance Hero Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum
     NYTimes (A. Gates) review of documentary Unlikely Heroes [2003] which included the story of Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum and was narrated by Ben Kingsley
     JewishStandard.com (J. Friedman) article about a stage play entitled "Unlikely Hero" about Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum
     Wikipedia entry about post-WW I / WW II era Hungarian Head of State (Regent) Miklós Horthy
     Wikipedia entry about Swiss Vice-Consul to Hungary Carl Lutz credited for saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews

My Review:
While in truth the final verdict on the film Walking with the Enemy [2013] (directed by Mark Schmidt, screenplay by Kenny Golde with additions by Richard Lasser) will need to come from both the Jewish/Israeli and Hungarian press as well as Jewish/Israeli and Hungarian public opinion (in both Hungary/Israel and abroad), IMHO the key to appreciating this film is that, set in WW II era Hungary during the closing year of the war, the film actually tells the stories of a number of people, both Hungarian and non, including Hungary's WW II era leader the Regent Miklós Horthy, trying to navigate their way through the horror/mess of the War "In the East," that is, seeking a way to "walk in the midst of enemies" on many sides. 

The primary protagonist of the film, fictionalized (for reasons unclear to me), is Alec Cohen (played by James Armstrong) who is based on the actual Hungarian WW II era Jewish resistance hero named Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum (article about, review of 2003 documentary in part about, review of stage play about).  After escaping a Hungarian forced-labor-camp for young able-bodied men of Jewish ancestry and discovering that the rest of his family had been deported from their home village, he went back to Budapest where he became involved in the Jewish underground there.  Since he had "Aryan features" (looked German ...) and like many educated Central Europeans at the time he spoke German fluently, he came to _impersonate_ a German SS officer in late-1944 Nazi occupied Budapest (Obviously he had to get a hold of an SS officer's uniform to do so).  Then together with several others Jewish resistance members (also dressed in captured SS uniforms) playing as if they were under his command, he would interdict attempts by the Hungarian National Socialist Arrow Cross units to round-up and capture Budapest's Jews, sending them instead to safe-houses throughout the city and giving them forged Swiss citizenship and travel documents obtained from the offices of Swiss Vice-Consul to Hungary Carl Lutz (played in the film by William Hope).  Of course, together they were but a tiny squad of impersonators in the midst of Hungary's capital city under Nazi occupation and as time went on, increasingly under siege by the approaching Soviet army.  So the number of people that they could actually save was necessarily "small" (though the number approached thousands to even tens of thousands) and of course involved enormous risk (capture meant torture and followed by summary execution).  Still, a remarkable number of episodes recalled in the background materials about the historical Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum cited above are dramatized in the film.

Then Hungary's story during World War II was about as complex as they come.  The World War II era Kingdom of Hungary was led by a conservative (former admiral) Regent Miklós Horthy (played in the film by Ben Kingsley) since the chaos following the dissolution of the Austria-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, a chaos that had included a brief period when Hungary had been under Communist rule.  Hence Regent Miklós Horthy was very wary of the Communist Soviet Union even as he mistrusted the mass movements of Fascism as well.  As "Regent" that is a "stand-in" (if for several decades ...) for the "vacant" throne of Hungary, he was, if nothing else, a rather "old school" Aristocrat, or at least espousing the values of that old Aristocracy.  As such, the "mass movements" of the time, especially those espousing thuggery (like both the Communists and the Fascists) were ever suspect by him.  Yet, post WW I Hungary was a small country between two regional powers -- Soviet Russia on one side and later Nazi Germany on the other.  So Miklós Horthy is portrayed in the film (and the wikipedia article about him seems to agree) as one who navigate Hungary between these two powers.  Yes, for much of the War, he did consider Nazi Germany as "the lesser of the two Evils," but so long as Hungary remained not outright occupied, he did the minimum to cooperate with the Nazis.  Notably, while Hungary remained unoccupied he refused to allow Hungary's Jews to be deported.  In late 1941, under pressure from Nazi Germany, he did come to expel (to Nazi occupied Ukraine, and hence to their deaths ...) Jewish refugees who had fled to Hungary (non-Hungarian citizens).

History seems to bear-out his resistance to Nazi pressure as he was NOT tried as a War Criminal after the War).  It was when Miklós Horthy tried to negotiate an Armistice with the Soviet Union that the Nazis stormed in to occupy Hungary and the persecutions / deportations of Hungary's Jews to the death camps of Nazi occupied Poland began.

Anyway, the story of Miklós Horthy's (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to "walk between Hungary's enemies" is also portrayed in this film.

It all makes for a complicated story, but one that many of Central European ancestry would certainly appreciate.  I, of Czech parents, have an aunt who has always quite adamantly maintained that if Austria-Hungary had been able to survive as a "Central European Federation" respecting the rights of all its constituent ethnicities then neither the Nazis nor the Communists would have been able to come to dominate Central Europe and perhaps WW II would have been able to have been prevented.  The splintering of Central Europe into many tiny nation states (including post-WW I Czechoslovakia) resulted in none of these little countries being able to stand-up to either the resurgent Nazi Germany or the post-WW II Soviet Russian juggernaut.

Again final word on the accuracy of the portrayal of WW II era Hungary in this film should be left to both Hungary's (and Israel's) press and public opinion (both in Hungary/Israel and abroad).  But I do appreciate the attempt.  Also Catholics (as well as Protestants) would appreciate that the film-makers tried to underline that many attempts, often successful, by both Catholic / Protestant institutions as well as clergy and laypeople to provide safe-havens to Hungary's many (hundreds of thousands) of Jews.  The Nazi and Hungarian Fascist Arrow-Cross jackboots often carried the day.  However despite brutal occupation, tens of thousands perhaps upwards to several hundred thousand Hungary's Jews across the country were saved.  And that is something to note (and honor) as well.

So over all, pretty good job folks, pretty good job!  This was _not_ a simple story to tell and you did IMHO quite well!  Congratulations!

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