The phrase “You won’t believe what happens next” is now a dig at linkbait-y web aggregators, but it does have its roots in true-adventure storytelling. Walking With The Enemy, loosely based on the wartime exploits of Pinchas Rosenbaum, has as many beginnings as the third Lord Of The Rings film has endings. The strange specificity of each early chapter is fascinating as “real life,” but as a narrative, it undervalues the meat of Mark Schmidt’s film. The actual movie only emerges toward the end. Rosenbaum’s character, Elek Cohen (Jonas Armstrong), is a vigilante in occupied Budapest, a Jewish Batman using determination, bravery, and cunning to swoop in and rescue as many of his doomed countrymen as possible. A film just about that could have been fascinating.
Before these thrilling nighttime scenes, however, comes a long road. First, Cohen flees the city. Then he has to escape a work camp. Then he needs to fall in with Swiss diplomats and use the sanctuary of the “Glass House” embassy as a base of operations. Naturally there’s a love interest, a martyred best buddy, and a drive to find lost family. Also, cutaways to Adolf Eichmann twirling his mustache, and Ben Kingsley as Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian regent whose brand of anti-Semitism could be considered tolerant only compared to the Nazis’. (In today’s Hungary, Horthy is an honored hero, and Walking With The Enemy, which makes great use of Budapest locations like the Chain Bridge and Fisherman’s Bastion, plays him like a saint. Draw your own conclusions.)
But Armstrong’s Cohen answers a question many on the safe side of history have asked: How could the Jews just allow themselves to be slaughtered? Walking With The Enemy, once it gets rolling, responds in dramatic, freedom-fighting fashion. After defending his love interest from rape, Cohen kills a Nazi officer and uses the dead man’s uniform to infiltrate the ranks of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian militia aligned with the Nazis. Hiding in plain sight, Cohen makes daring rescues and halts firing squads. These sequences cut together like a modern superhero film, with the Totenkopf replacing the cape and cowl.
The moments of adventure are unfortunately weighted down by generic story tangents ripped from daytime soap operas. A little boy is picked up off the streets, plopped with nuns (at the picturesque Matthias Church), then forgotten until the last scene, when he has to hug someone in slow motion. British actress Hannah Tointon has a wretched Hungarian accent. Schmidt thinks he has a Doctor Zhivago epic on his hands, but the presentation is sub-History Channel. Yet Walking With The Enemy presents an interesting philosophical question. Those who dare to fight injustice must have their story told. Rithy Panh’s recent The Missing Picture sells this argument in a beautiful, compelling way. Since narrative film is still the best way to mass communicate, there’s a moral obligation to celebrate a movie like this in some way. But when the movie is bad, as is the case here, does it do more harm than good? In the spaces between the hackneyed dialogue, ham-handed score, and poor acting, Walking With The Enemy eventually wins its sole victory: a desire to look the story up on Wikipedia later that day. That may be a small triumph, but it’s hardly the mark of fine cinema.