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Searing Performances Invigorate ‘Walking with the Enemy’

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CHICAGO – In Movie Land, the World War II Holocaust drama has been more personal – and in many ways more horrific – in our modern era. From Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” to Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” the Jewish genocide of the Holocaust has been rendered more artfully and truthfully. The latest film to tell a different story, from a different angle, is director Mark Schmidt’s “Walking with the Enemy.”

The film is set near the end of the war, in Budapest, Hungary, which was a late territory takeover from the Nazi regime. As in the other takeovers, the Jewish population is marginalized and rounded up for extermination. The twist in this tale is that an underground movement fought back by actually impersonating the Nazi officers to redirect groups of Jewish captives, and set up a system to create passports to Switzerland and safety. The film is a fictionalized drama of these circumstances, but it faithfully resurrects the tension and terror having to do with the risk, and the excellent performances by Jonas Armstrong (as a member of the underground), Ben Kingsley, Simon Dutton and Hannah Tointon bring the era back to the important expectation of “never again.”

Elek Cohen (Armstrong) is the son of a rabbi in Budapest, Hungary. When the Nazis invade near the end of World War II in 1944, Elek is recruited to do hard labor as part of the marginalizing of the Jewish population. He escapes during an Allied raid and returns to Budapest, to find his family gone. In the background of all this is the surrender of Hungary to the Nazis, with local Regent Horthy (Kingsley) ironing out the desperate terms.

Hannah Tointon, Jonas Armstrong
Hannah (Hannah Tointon) and Elek (Jonas Armstrong) in ‘Walking with the Enemy’
Photo credit: Liberty Studios

Elek fights back within an underground resistance movement, and as their activities evolve, he even puts on a Nazi uniform and orders lower echelon guards to release large groups of Jewish prisoners to his “care.” He uses this influence to steer these groups through a trail to Switzerland through an old glass factory, which prints passports through director of operations Miklos Schoen (Dutton). Miklos daughter Hannah (Hannah Tointon) also connects to Elek in profound ways.

This is a passion project all the way, especially in how the cast interpreted their roles. There are barriers all around to a lower budget World War II period drama, but the honesty and authenticity that the production gives this one-of-a-kind war story is powerful. It combines the anxiety and suspense of earlier-era WWII dramas like “The Great Escape” and “Bridge on the River Kwai” with more personal and direct modern works like the aforementioned “Schindler’s List.”

And it is the small touches that created this atmosphere include Kingsley portraying the actual Regent of Hungary and his regal manner versus the frustrations of war. Armstrong – channeling Elek – really understands the conflicted emotions of a man whose family may be dead, but in his heart he must fight on, through any means necessary. He was especially effective in playing a Jewish man impersonating a Nazi officer, with all the conflicting feelings impaled onto the performance.

The women in the film at first seems miscast, with their modern looks not matching that war torn time. But all of the woman actors are so focused on the difficulties they encounter, including a brutal rape scene. It proves that sincerity can overcome limitations of physical attributes, and the careful and appropriate casting from director Schmidt – who also formulated the story – is evident down to the smallest role.

Jonas Armstrong
Elek Impersonates a Nazi Officer in ‘Walking with the Enemy’
Photo credit: Liberty Studios

If there is any criticism, it may be time to get away from the one-note villainy of the Nazis. Many of them were bureaucrats following orders, and willing to be done with the fight for a homeland rather than “the Ideologies,” but because this includes the horrors of genocide, murder and terror – characteristics of all wars – the actors playing the Nazis have to chew the usual scenery to project the evil. There are subtleties to be explored everywhere in the human condition, and a little more on that side might offer a more nuanced perspective.

This is an absorbing lesson of the past for everyone, especially for audiences interested in that era’s history. And it’s a reminder that the persons who actually lived the Holocaust and World War II may completely die out in another ten years. In the notion of “it can never happen-again,” we must remember.

“Walking with the Enemy” has a limited release, including Chicago, on April 25th. Featuring Jonas Armstrong, Simon Dutton, Ben Kingsley, Hannah Tointon and Burn Gorman. Screenplay by Kenny Golde. Directed by Mark Schmidt. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2014 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

Judy Nash's picture

Walking with The Enemy

Those of us who are Jonas’ most devoted and loyal fans, knew he would rise to the occasion and give his absolute best as he does with all the roles he has played and we have been anxiously waiting for the release for 4 1/2 years now since we actually had the pleasure of meeting him in person and at that time, it appeared the project might have been shelved. Not so as shortly after it was announced the movie would go ahead and we have been waiting patiently since then.

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