Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that the film is unrated. It is PG-13. This version has been updated.
Some true stories are so dramatic, it doesn’t take much to transform them into movies. That’s the case with the exploits of Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum. A Jewish man living in Budapest during World War II, he dressed as an officer of the Arrow Cross — the country’s fascist pro-Nazi group — to get information and save thousands of lives.
And yet Mark Schmidt’s directorial debut, “Walking With the Enemy,” applies a heavy dose of melodrama to this retelling of Rosenbaum’s story, piling on the schmaltz and taking unnecessary liberties with the facts.
Irish actor Jonas Armstrong plays Elek Cohen (the character based on Rosenbaum), the son of a rabbi who works repairing record players until the Nazis descend on Hungary. After a brief stint in a horrifying work camp, Elek returns to Budapest, where he begins working at the Glass House, a refuge for Jews and a meeting place for revolutionaries. In the meantime, he rescues his love interest, Hannah (Hannah Tointon), from being raped by a couple of Nazi SS officers. After killing the men, Elek uses their uniforms to travel freely among the Nazis. He rescues friends from subterranean dungeons, redirects death-camp-bound Jews toward the Glass House, halts imminent executions and orders around less senior Nazi soldiers.
That Elek dresses as a Nazi officer rather than a Hungarian one (as he did in real life) raises some questions. Would Elek’s German be good enough to allow him to travel among the Nazis undetected? And why even bother changing the real story?
Elek’s narrative is told in parallel to the equally fascinating history of Hungarian leadership during World War II. Ben Kingsley plays Miklós Horthy, Hungary’s regent, who aligned his country with the Germans for fear of Soviet invasion and soon realized the Faustian reality of his pact. He was ultimately deposed by the Nazis after he attempted to surrender to the Allies.
Both threads promise intense moments, especially as the movie progresses and Elek’s behavior becomes more and more reckless. But there are constant reminders of both oversimplification and dramatic exaggeration. After Elek rescues a recently orphaned boy and brings him to the Glass House, Hannah tells Elek that the child is “lucky to have you in his life.” It’s an odd thing to say given that Elek has only just met the boy, and it’s just one example of a script that attempts to pull at heartstrings without taking the time to set the scene.
A simple retelling of these stories would have been more dramatic, more effective and more powerful.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence.