It was an honor to interview Mark Schmidt, director of “Walking With the Enemy,” a major motion picture inspired by the true story in the final months of World War II. This story is little-known to American audiences, but is well-known in Hungary. It resembles “Schindler’s List” in its portrayal of the Nazi occupation. The film hit theaters April 25 in over 35 top cities.
Schmidt had learned of a war hero, Pinchas Rosenbaum, whose name popped up online and in books. Intrigued, he visited Budapest to research Rosenbaum’s Hungarian village and interview various people. He was inspired to write a screenplay loosely based on Rosenbaum’s escapades. For him, the message and meaning of the film assured him that the effort, no matter how unlikely or monumental, would be worth it.
“Everything in the film is true, although the name of the hero is changed,” says Schmidt, who adds that it took a lot of work to get a got PG 13 rating due to the realism and emotion. “It’s tastefully done so people won’t be overwhelmed.” Suspense, romance, action and heartfelt realism shine on the screen.
World War II
“War is hell,” writes theologian and philosopher Frederich Buechner. “But sometimes in the midst of that hell, men do things that heaven itself must be proud of.”
This rings true in the case of Elek Cohen (played by Jonas Armstrong), a young hero whose unlikely journey through the waning months of World War II gives him an opportunity to perform unimaginably heroic deeds.
At first, life in Hungary was untouched by the war. While neighboring countries like Poland and Austria saw their Jewish populations scattered and destroyed, Hungarian Jews lived out the course of the war with relatively few restrictions and limited awareness of the extent of what was happening to their cousins and families elsewhere.
Hungary had a very unique relationship to Germany during the 1930s and the worldwide depression. They grew to rely on the economic assistance of Axis powers Germany and Italy and joined the Axis early on, but their relationship to Germany was always strained. The anticommunist regent and virtual dictator of Hungary, Miklas Horthy (played by Sir Ben Kingsley), focused on protecting the people of Hungary (including the Jews) regardless of what his German allies asked him to do.
Hungarians First and Foremost
Remarkably for the time, Hungary’s Jews made up about six percent of the population and were embedded in the nation’s social and economic structure. One pre-war survey says that over 40% of the doctors and veterinarians in the country were Jewish, along with over a third of the journalists. To Horthy, their religious identity didn’t matter – the people of his country were all Hungarians first and foremost.
Though Hungarian troops fought with the Nazis in their failed attempt to defeat the Soviet Union on the Eastern front, Hungary was also secretly trying to negotiate peace treaties with America and her allies. Indeed, in March 1944 the Hungarian leadership talked peace terms. This act pushed Hitler and his military leaders to stage a coup. Berlin sent in troops, and Hungary was forced to bow to the will of Hitler and Eichmann.
Jewish citizens who had been protected from persecution were now vulnerable to full out terror on the streets.
Elek was called up to work at a Jewish Hungarian labor camp — a particularly bad one — and escaped back to his village. As the occupying Nazi forces scrambled madly to relocate – and likely exterminate – thousands of Jews, Elek discovered that no one was left at his village. He traveled to Budapest in a desperate attempt to find his loved ones and joined a group of resistors who provided forged passports to Jewish families. But he also stole the uniform of a Nazi officer, and in a moment of courage masqueraded as an SS officer to divert a group of Jews headed onto a train. “Elek risks his life time after time, when he easily could have just hidden away,” says filmmaker Mark Schmidt. “But he did everything possible, without an army or a government behind him.”
For the remainder of the war Elek was at great risk and realized that his own family was likely never to be found. Still, he used his perfect German to confuse the Nazis and save as many lives as possible. Though the violence against his country and his people seemed endless and insurmountable, he slowly proved that anyone with a good heart and a strong will can emerge as a hero.
To make the film as authentic as possible, Schmidt interviewed 40 people from the past, noting that there aren’t many left due to age. He found it interesting to talk to survivors about war, which brings out the best and worst of people. “I really got educated on human nature. It woke me up a bit. Everyone coexisted and had been friends for zillions of years, then all the sudden Jews were the enemy,” he notes. A lot of survivors were disappointed in their Hungarian neighbors, although a few non-Jews risked their lives to help others.
Test screenings in four states and film festivals drew moviegoers and history buffs alike. Incredibly, Schmidt also heard from some Holocaust deniers, or at least those who white wash the atrocities. Once someone commented, “Boy, Mark, you got it wrong. Hitler only put people to sleep who were dying, and the Jews don’t deserve to get their property back.”
People showed up for screenings in Los Angeles, New York and San Diego. “It sold out at Palm Springs Film Festival and does have a good ending,” says Schmidt. “I loved it when men get tears in their eyes. Women usually admit it, but men don’t,” he notes.
A Notable Cast and Crew
For Schmidt and producer Randy Williams of Liberty Studios, the project was a multi-year labor of love. With a complicated production schedule and shooting locations in both Europe and the United States, they hired quality professionals in order to make an authentic and meaningful period film.
Academy Award-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley portrays the beleaguered Hungarian leader Regent Horthy. “To be honest, I couldn’t think of anyone else but Sir Ben Kingsley. Sir Ben has a great heart, and he’s got a passion for right against evil that really drew him to the part. He is an extraordinary professional,” says Schmidt.
The same was true of the rest of cast, most of them from Great Britain, were also moved by Elek’s story and the opportunity to bring this unique story to life. Dublin-born Jonas Armstrong, best known for playing the title role in the BBC series “Robin Hood” and opposite Chloe Sevigny in the acclaimed and controversial miniseries “Hit and Miss,” proved to have exactly the right combination of experience and ability that was needed to bring Elek to life. Hannah Tointon also stars as Elek’s love interest.
The principal crew includes Academy Award-nominees like cinematographer Dean Cundey (“Apollo 13,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) and editor Richard Nord (“The Fugitive”).
The movie opened in Studio 30, Willow brook, First colony, Tinseltown 290, Cinemark 19, Marquee West Oaks and other local theaters. It will run as long as audiences attend, and then will be available on DVD.
As a historic film that shares a relatively unknown part of WWII, the PG-13 rating allows younger audiences to experience what war meant globally. We recommend it as a worthy addition to any home library… and if you have the chance, definitely see it!