Good intentions and a good backstory don’t necessarily lead to good filmmaking but, in the case of “Walking With the Enemy,” they certainly help. Sometimes awkward and melodramatic, the debut film from director Mark Schmidt nevertheless derives strength from its little-known true-life story of Holocaust heroism.
Set in Budapest, Hungary, it chronicles the daring exploits of a young Jewish man, Elek Cohen (Jonas Armstrong), who uses his Aryan looks to rage against Hitler’s machine. As Hungary is invaded by the Nazis, and well-meaning but weak politicians like Regent Horthy (Ben Kingsley) find themselves powerless to stop the roundups of Jews, including Elek’s family, Elek hatches a plan. He will steal the uniforms from dead Nazi officers, act official and use his purloined authority to divert trainloads of Jews bound for certain death to secret safety.
It’s an inherently suspenseful and dramatic tale, and Schmidt manages some nerve-twisting moments when it seems as if Cohen’s subterfuge will be unmasked. Irish actor Armstrong possesses a gung-ho energy, while Kingsley and Burn Gorman (“Torchwood,” “Turn”) as Nazi toady Col. Skorzeny provide some dramatic gravitas.
But “Enemy” is nearly undone by a pedestrian, by-the-numbers approach (there are 11 credited writers, including Schmidt), a sometimes intrusive score and the feeling that the close calls may have less to do with historical accuracy and more with just ramping up the tension. (While the Cohen character is indeed fictional, it was inspired by Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, a Jewish Hungarian man who assumed Nazi identities to help other Jews escape.)
When the credits roll and the viewer finds out the fates of the actual historical figures, it’s hard not to be moved. But less Cohen and more Rosenbaum — a documentary, perhaps — might have been the wiser way to go.
(At Barrywoods, Independence, Standees, Studio 30.)