“Walking With the Enemy”: The Hungarian Holocaust Up Close and Personal
“Walking With The Enemy” is not just another Holocaust film. In fact, despite its cast of mostly little-known actors and being the directorial debut of Mark Schmidt, it has many characteristics of a first-rate Hollywood film. From the quality of some of the acting and cinematography to the musical score and from the beautiful and stirring Budapest (really Romania) setting and camera angles to the use of expensive, time-appropriate military equipment (one cannot tell that it is a low-budget film), this film belongs in movie theaters across the country as well as in peoples’ home theaters. Most importantly, from the perspective of Jewish education, it deserves a distinguished place in the Jewish education film library. I was at the edge of my seat for most of the film, which made the approximately two-hour run-time go by very quickly. The characters are believable and the acting very good, especially that of Ben Kingsley.
One of the film’s stories centers around Kingsley’s character (Regent Miklos Horthy) who led Hungary during much of WWII and who also attempted to save its Jewish population. This is a fascinating role for Kingsley given his prior role as Yitzhak Stern in “Schindler’s List” (Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film which won the 1994 Academy Award for Best Picture). In some ways, it is a continuation of the same character, albeit from a very different perspective. Horthy’s character is one of righting wrongs and, in his own politically savvy way, of maneuvering through difficult political terrain (at great personal risk) in order to save as many Jews as possible. Although on the surface Horthy is in a position of great power, in reality his very life depends on and is limited by his political need to show allegiance to the Nazis.
Regent Horthy was an important real life person who has been all-but-forgotten in the annals of Holocaust history. Despite the fact that Horthy’s place in history is complex, this film projects his character in a positive light. On the one hand, Horthy was a self-proclaimed anti-Semite who permitted anti-Semitic legislation to be passed during his time in office. However, according to Eliezer Rabinovitch in his article in Moment Magazine, these measures were often ignored and no one saved as many Jews in 1944 as did Regent Horthy. Rabinovitch also argues that Horthy’s anti-Semitism was, to some degree, feigned and a form of appeasement to the prevailing anti-Semitic social currents in Hungary and to Hungary’s German allies.
By contrast, in his personal life, Horthy had friends and acquaintances among the Hungarian Jewish population. His memoirs indicate his sense of responsibility to safeguard Jewish lives. Indeed, on various occasions he risked a great deal by refusing to institute and by actually halting the deportation of Jews, much to the notice and chagrin of Nazi Germany. In fact, it can be argued that his protection of Jews was partly responsible for his fall from power and for the military takeover of Hungary by the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party in 1944 in concert with Nazi Germany.
While I understand history’s ambivalent attitude toward Horthy, I believe the historical facts speak for themselves. Regardless of what Horthy claimed or did not claim to be, he risked everything to save Hungarian Jews. After all, Oskar Schindler, who is honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, was also a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party. Did not Elek (the other main character of this film who is based on the real person, Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum) don a Nazi (really, Arrow Cross) uniform in order to have access to power and save Jews? Perhaps, sometimes, one needed to dress and act like a Nazi in order to save Jews. Perhaps this is what Miklos Horthy did as well. It is hoped that this film may provide the impetus to reconsider Horthy’s role in saving Jews and possibly lead to his name being among those honored by Yad Vashem.
Jonas Armstrong in the lead role (Elek) has the challenging task of transitioning back and forth between Elek’s genuine self as a young Hungarian Jew struggling to survive and Elek’s impersonation of an SS officer, critical to his mission of saving Jewish prisoners from being killed. Here there are clearly echoes of another Holocaust film, “Europa, Europa” (1990) in which the main character dons a German uniform in order to survive. However, in this film, Elek dresses as a Nazi in order to save both himself and as many Jews as possible.
In so doing, Elek actually plays two unaligned characters: a Jew and a Nazi; thus personifying the title of the film: “Walking With The Enemy.” This reminds me of the way in which Robin Williams (of blessed memory) played the dual role in “Mrs. Doubtfire”(1993) and Dustin Hoffman pulled off a legendary performance of a similar nature in “Tootsie” (1982). While Armstrong has not yet reached the level of Williams or Hoffman, his performance and ability to quickly switch between roles is, indeed, commendable and indicative of a master actor in the making.
Some may point to failed attempts by several of the actors to replicate authentic Hungarian and German accents. The effort in and of itself, however, deserves praise. This is neither the first nor the only film set in WWII Europe to have a wide variety of actors succeeding to various degrees in mastering authentic accents.
It is clear to me from viewing many Holocaust themed films that the German accent is quite powerful used as the language of SS officers, Gestapo and concentration camp personnel seen shouting at prisoners as they come off deportation cattle trains. However, what if the Jewish inmates are also German or German-speaking? Does the use of the German accent still play a role? Perhaps it becomes confusing when German officers and German-Jewish concentration camp inmates employ the same accent. Also, do we forever wish to associate the German language with screaming Nazi officers? Let us not forget that prior to World War II, German was the language of the Jewish intelligentsia. Was the Holocaust a German phenomenon (as Daniel Goldhagen claims in his book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” (Goldhagen, Daniel, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, 1997)? Is genocide a uniquely German phenomenon or are all nations capable of genocide under certain conditions, as claimed by Christopher Browning in his book, “Ordinary Men” (Browning, Christopher, Ordinary Men, 1992)?
Likewise, one must ask: “Is the Hungarian accent important?” How important can it be when both Arrow Cross officers and Hungarian Jews being persecuted by them are speaking in the same accent? It seems to me that the use of accents, their power and their importance in Holocaust themed films is a topic worth re-examining. Furthermore, if Kevin Costner can get away with playing Robin Hood with an American accent rather than an English accent in the major motion picture “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991), then we can forgive the less than perfect accents in this film as well. My thinking, at this point, is that one either uses the language of the country in which the film is taking place or one forgets about accents altogether.
As has been pointed out by other film critics (such as Richard Roeper), the scenes in which Elek points a gun at other soldiers may appear to stretch believability. While the film is based on actual events and the real life experiences of Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, I have also wondered whether this part is authentic or a Hollywood embellishment. Given the high degree of discipline, regiment and respect for authority with which soldiers are trained under fascist regimes (i.e., Arrow Cross or Nazis), it does seem questionable that he would have gotten away with such behavior. The film has been criticized for this and other aspects for being too “Hollywood” and having too many clichés.
While I enjoy documentary films and believe in historically accurate films, especially when it comes to the Holocaust, the use of Hollywood “magic” to make history more palatable to modern audiences is not without its justification and precedent. Indeed, the film “Exodus” (1960) literally re-wrote the story of the clandestine ship that tried to reach British Palestine. While some of the facts in “Walking With the Enemy” may have been stretched, in its essence, it is a true story. This is something that cannot be said of “Boy In The Striped Pajamas,” (2008) which I believe received a much warmer reception from film critics.
“Walking With The Enemy” is groundbreaking from a Jewish educational perspective because it portrays a unique part of the Holocaust not often discussed by Hollywood. In many ways, the Hungarian Jewish experience has been neglected by Hollywood. When I worked for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, our mandate included collecting Holocaust survivor testimonies from everywhere in the world where the Holocaust took place in order to provide as full a story as possible. Today, this film and “Son of Saul” (2015 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film), together bring the WWII Hungarian Jewish experience into focus in a timely manner. This is especially important in light of the current political climate in Hungary that includes a growing Hungarian fascist anti-Semitic party (see here and here). The Nazi takeover of Hungary during WWII, which was facilitated from the inside by Hungary’s then Arrow Cross fascist party, is a stark reminder of the dangers of fascist and anti-Semitic parties in our own day.
The film also serves as a reminder that the Holocaust was not just about concentration camps, crematoria, and ovens. It was also about Nazis and their collaborators who shot Jews at close range, who beat and raped them, who stole their property, who destroyed their property, who screamed at them, who pushed and shoved them, who hounded them, and who forced them at gunpoint to do hard labor and demeaning tasks. The Holocaust included an up close and personal dimension in which Jews suddenly found themselves being attacked, bullied, betrayed and demeaned by everyone around them, even by neighbors they once trusted. For anyone who has been bullied or otherwise abused, the film is unnerving and shows just how far bullying, psychopathology and sadism can be taken. This film also does not shy away from recognizing that many perpetrators really did enjoy the act of murder and got a thrill out of it. One is left wondering what would happen in our own society if murder was made legal. How many Americans would take to the streets to satisfy a blood lust?
According to my reading of historian Daniel Goldhagen sociological analysis in his book , “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” the blood thirst, hatred and pure evil in the eyes of the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators and the joy with which they killed Jews was not only cinematically well done but also suggests that the film‘s chilling representation of this terrible reality was historically accurate. The illogical and maniacal commitment of the perpetrators to kill as many Jews as possible is strongly emphasized as this irrational “mission” takes the number one place on the Nazi and Arrow Cross agendas. It becomes even more important for the Germans than winning the war against the Allies. Indeed, it becomes an obsession.
This too, sadly, is historically accurate as German records clearly show that, during WWII, trains were diverted from the German war effort for use in deporting Jews to death camps. Some documents also indicate that Hitler broke his pact with the Soviet Union (Molotov-Ribbentrop, signed in 1939), thus placing Germany in a more vulnerable position (a two-front war), in order to be able to impose his “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” upon Jews who were then under Soviet protection.
The film also serves as a lesson in anti-Semitism. An early scene shows Jews being blamed for a squabble that they did not start and, as a result, being asked to leave a university event. The squabble begins when someone makes an anti-Semitic remark and the Jews are asked to leave. The event foreshadows that which is to come and is a reminder that anti-Semitism begins small and grows. The film reiterates the lesson that no degree of racism and anti-Semitism should be tolerated.
As Hungary comes under German influence, Jews are ordered to report to a work camp. It quickly becomes abundantly clear that this is the beginning of a killing spree in which the sick and those injured in the course of work are summarily shot.
As the film progresses and Germany’s influence over Hungary’s domestic affairs and its Jewish community grows, we see the situation of the Jewish community looking more and more like the Holocaust with which we are more familiar: concentration camps, death camps, gas chambers, Zyklon B gas, and gas chambers. If one has not studied the Holocaust, would they understand what they are being visually exposed to? They likely would not know or understand what goes on in those chambers, what Zyklon B gas does, or how many bodies are removed from the chambers. In other words, this film avoids exactly that which “Son of Saul” so starkly depicts.
The film also deserves credit for the way that it intertwined the macro and the micro. In other words, the government intrigues, politics and war with the personal lives of ordinary people. Historians attempt to pay greater attention to the ways in which large social and political movements affect the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. Amazingly, this film has done just that and has demonstrated the power of this relationship.
Furthermore, this film is not just about the Holocaust. It is also about resistance and the enduring human spirit. To me, it represents the message that the State of Israel gave to its Holocaust Memorial Day by calling it “Yom Hashoah Ve’Hagevurah” (Holocaust and Bravery Memorial Day). I am a big proponent of Holocaust resistance films as they share not only “doom and gloom,” but also hope that good can overcome evil and that, even in the darkest of circumstances, some people will do the right thing.
This film, based on a true story of : (1) a Jew who saved Jewish lives by posing as a Nazi (really, Arrow Cross) soldier, (2) a non-Jewish politician who stood up against the Nazis, and (3) all those who clandestinely handed out as many Swiss passes as possible (under the leadership of Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz) in order to save Jewish lives, “Walking With The Enemy” should be applauded as one of heroism, bravery and resistance to evil.
As “Walking With The Enemy” becomes available on DVD and in digital format, I urge film critics and Jewish and Holocaust educators to take this film seriously for the substantial contribution it makes toward a greater understanding of WWII and the Holocaust in both a Hungarian and a Hungarian Jewish context.
It is a film worth screening for anyone interested in studying and teaching the Holocaust.