Walking with the Enemy is for fans of World War II movies that document the ways that people fought the annihilation of the Jews or used individuals inside of the Nazi war machine. It follows in the historical tradition of films like Schindler’s List, The Book Thief, Valkyrie, and The Boy With The Striped Pajamas). Based on the life and mission of real-life Hungarian Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, the film lays the background for us to understand the political tensions and war impact in Budapest as the bigger story allows Elek Cohen (Jonas Armstrong) to thrive under pressure.
Ben Kingsley is the big draw here on the baroque, as the country official wrestling with the bigger picture behind Cohen’s attempt to rescue his family and reunite with his lover. Kingsley is Regent Horthy, a real-life figure who attempted to keep Hungary outside of Hitler’s full attention (and wrath), but whose faltering support of the Third Reich draws suspicion. (Honestly, while Horthy’s efforts are important to the safety of his nation, it doesn’t play as powerfully as the side of the story involving Cohen.)
We know Cohen is different, in his defense of his friends when it comes to fisticuffs, but also in the way that he approaches potential revenge against those who abuse him. Is it merely being the son of a rabbi? Is he soft? Or is he, like Kiefer Sutherland’s POW in To End All Wars? Is there something deeper and philosophical underlying the historical thriller?
The film feels old-fashioned at times in its pacing, but unlike The Book Thief (which I’d read prior), it held my attention and drew me into the desperation and courage that Cohen showed. The violence isn’t graphic but it’s no less shocking when it comes. The casual nature of the Nazis’ actions lends itself to an easier comparison to the evils of today, and the way that the morality of our world can slide past a point of no return. What struck me most was the way that the gradual horror became evident. (At first, the Jews didn’t see the danger coming, even as their younger and more critical demographics urged them to consider the Nazis’ evil intentions.) Cohen runs into a consistent “but we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves” sentiment, like his efforts might be too dangerous, rather than less dangerous than just letting the Nazis have their way.
Jesus said, “no greater love has a man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Cohen understands that sentiment to mean that he should defend the weak, rescue the imprisoned, etc. even when it moves past his understanding of family and his inner circle. He will take on the form of the enemy to disguise himself; he will walk into the gates of hell, undetected, even as he believes he is “only doing what anyone else would do.”
Still, for all of his success, he finds himself in a similar place to Oskar Schindler: he’s celebrated for those he saves and tormented by the memory of those he can’t, even as the trains deport more and more Jews. The cost is tremendous for the young man and his associates, but the cost of doing nothing would be even greater.
Cohen is heroic, not in a small way or in a one-time way, but in a practiced form of behavior that should inspire us all to work against the evil systems in our world, to make a difference.