By Rochelle Maruch Miller
Walking with the Enemy is 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 the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews. It is an unforgettable film of love, courage, and sacrifice.
During the final months of World War II, a young man sets out to find his displaced family by using a stolen Nazi uniform in order to pose as an officer. In a journey filled with suspense and danger, he undertakes extraordinary measures to reunite his family and bring others to safety (with the help of Swiss officials and other Christians) by disrupting the activities of the German officers.
Elek Cohen (Jonas Armstrong), who is Pinchas Rosenbaum’s fictional stand-in, disguises himself as a Nazi officer to save as many lives as possible in war-torn Hungary.
Despite the acts of anti-Semitism perpetrated upon Elek and his friends early on in the film, the treatment of the Jews of Hungary had been relatively mild up until then. Under the leadership of Regent Horthy (Academy Award Winner Ben Kingsley depicts the controversial leader), the country was an ally of the Reich, maintaining tenuous independence and avoiding the worst of the Holocaust. But as the war turns against the Nazis and Horthy attempts to extricate himself from Hitler and seek a separate peace with the Allies, conditions worsen. Bending to German demands, Horthy sends Jewish men off to labor camps, including Elek and his friends. They escape the brutal camps only to return home to find that their families have been deported. With nothing to lose, Cohen joins up with a group that provides Jews with Swiss passports.
While Horthy struggles to strike the right deal to protect his people, Elek risks his life to bring as many people to safety as possible, while desperately searching for his family.
Elek, the son of a rabbi, shows unusual pluck, alertness, and foresight early on; he is also extremely fortunate, 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 S.S. soldiers and members of a newly empowered anti-Semitic Hungarian extremist group called the Arrow-Cross Party, Elek is shaken; but when his friend Hannah (Hannah Tointon) is brutally attacked in front of her family by two S.S. officers, he springs into action.
It’s a brutal scene, and when it’s over, the two soldiers are dead, and Elek has possession of a uniform that, along with his perfect command of German and considerable temerity, will allow him to pass for a Nazi.
In real life, Pinchas Rosenbaum acquired an Arrow-Cross uniform, not an S.S. one, and under considerably less dramatic circumstances. Still, it is incredibly stirring 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.
Key to the success of Elek’s operation are Hannah and the Glass House, a shelter where numerous Jews take refuge on the false pretext of having Swiss citizenship.
Filmed primarily in Rumania, Walking with the Enemy is beautifully photographed (A-list veteran Dean Cundey) and is a compelling addition to the Shoah canon.
I discussed the film’s inception with Marty Katz of Libert Films and Chris Williams, who is a producer of Walking with the Enemy as well as one of its leading actors.
“It all began with Mark Schmidt, (the film’s producer/director),” Marty explained. “He had seen Unsung Heroes, a documentary about incredible heroes who had demonstrated extraordinary acts of courage during World War II. One of the stories was about Pinchas Rosenbaum, who had disguised himself as a Nazi officer during WWII and saved thousands of Jewish lives. Mark was inspired by this young man’s selflessness. He felt that he had to tell this story.”
“We all got involved from the get-go because the story was so compelling,” says Chris. “We were amazed to hear about the risks Pinchas took to save people’s lives. He was very bold; what he did was unbelievable. He would go into the barracks and bark orders at the Nazis–and they’d follow his orders!” He adds, “We did have to create quite a bit of story, adding details and events.”
Unfortunately, Pinchas Rosenbaum is no longer alive, and although his family members were not involved in creating the film, Chris told me that one of Pinchas’s sons as well as a grandchild had both seen the film and reached out to them with positive feedback.
I asked Chris and Marty to describe the challenges they encountered while bringing the film to fruition.
“Any time you do a period piece, it’s always tricky,” Chris explained. “How do you make it authentic? We put together a top-notch, award-winning team for this film. This is a story that must be told. Its message is timeless and universal. A lot of people don’t know what happened in Hungary–600,000 people were deported in six weeks! It’s amazing that we haven’t heard more about it.”
Chris adds, “The Swiss Embassy was very involved in giving out passes, and there was a great deal of support from the Swiss government. There is a good German in the film, and the Catholic Church helped as well. There are always people who risk their lives to help others.”
Says Marty, “Unfortunately, there has been a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. Ninety percent of audiences who see this film love it. They tell us they want to continue the conversation, as there are fewer and fewer survivors left to tell their story. It’s a beautiful story.”
“This is a very inspirational story with a universal message,” Chris explains. “Most of us have the ability to help others. This is the core of the movie–the individual taking risks. No matter how bad things look, there is always hope. One person can make a difference.”
Liberty Films was founded on a desire to bring inspirational, true life stories to the big screen. Liberty’s mission is to celebrate outstanding individuals for their accomplishments past and present.
Walking with The Enemy is playing at the Malverne Cinema (350 Hempstead Ave in Malverne, 516-599-6966) and North Shore Towers Cinema (27240 Grand Central Pkwy in Floral Park, 718-229-7702) during October 16—29.