New feature film Walking With the Enemy explores the relatively unknown role of Hungary before and after the invasion of Nazi Germany.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the opening of the final frontier of the Holocaust, when the Nazi killing machine swept through its erstwhile ally Hungary and slaughtered more than 600,000 of the country’s 800,000 Jews. Just in time for those commemorations as well as for Holocaust Remembrance Day, a new film about one of the country’s greatest heroes of that era will open in theaters on April 25.
There have been memorial events both here and in Hungary, including a symposium at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in March, but the general public’s knowledge of what happened to Hungarian Jews during World War II still lags behind that of the fate of Jews from other parts of Europe. This is partly the result of the country’s Jewish population being spared the full ferocity of the Final Solution for most of the war. It is also, according to Paul Shapiro, the director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the museum, due to Hungary’s four decades behind the Iron Curtain.
“Dealing with the Holocaust during the communist era was a totally political issue,” Shapiro says. “The subject was extremely sensitive in countries with a high degree of Nazi collaboration, and Hungary was right at the head of that line, along with Romania and the Baltic countries.”
Shapiro explains that with the fall of communism, it has become possible to access the Hungarian archives of that time — “they are available, but not freely available.” As a result, the story of how three-quarters of the country’s Jews were murdered during the war has become much more detailed — as has the stories of those who helped save the rest.
One of those stories was the catalyst for Walking With the Enemy, the dramatization of the life-saving exploits of Pinchas Rosenbaum, the scion of one of Hungary’s most respected rabbinical families. He was ordained for the rabbinate at age 18 and expected to take over for his father, the rabbi of the town of Kleinwardein. But Rosenbaum, like so many other able-bodied Hungarian Jewish men, was conscripted to a Nazi work camp in 1944. After escaping from the camp with some of his friends, Rosenbaum returned home to find that his family had been sent to Auschwitz, never to be seen again.
Unable to save his own loved ones, Rosenbaum dedicated himself to rescuing as many of his landesmen as possible from both the Nazis and their willing Hungarian accessories in the Nilasz, or Arrow Cross. Risking his own life time and again by impersonating both German and Hungarian officials to take command of Jews scheduled for deportation, hard labor or death, he was able to shepherd hundreds of his people to the Swiss Embassy and its various safe houses.
It was in these shelters that a resistance group spearheaded by Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz’s rogue issuance of Swiss “letters of protection” was able to save the lives of more than 62,000 Hungarian Jews by the time the Red Army took control of Hungary in 1945. The most famous of these shelters was The Glass House, the former glass factory in downtown Budapest that housed thousands of refugees at a time.
Like many Americans, Mark Schmidt was unaware of Rosenbaum and his heroism before he watched a segment devoted to Rosenbaum’s heroism in the 2004 documentary, Unlikely Heroes. Schmidt was so taken with Rosenbaum’s unheralded story that he formed a production company in order to bring Rosenbaum’s story to the screen.
“I enjoy history,” Schmidt says, “and when I came across the story of Pinchas Rosenbaum, I said, ‘The world needs to see the story of a true hero — not a Rambo, but a true hero, a real person.’ ”
So the San Diego-based, Christian real estate developer formed Liberty Studios with his business partners and took extension classes at UCLA Film School to learn how to direct a big-budget film. It stars Jonas Armstrong (best known for portraying the lead character in the BBC series, Robin Hood) as Elek, the screen version of Rosenbaum.
Schmidt says he decided to change the protagonist’s name because, even though the film is as factual as possible, there wasn’t enough information available on Rosenbaum to be as accurate as he would have liked. It also stars Ben Kingsley as the Hungarian leader, Regent Horthy.
In addition to his first-rate cast, Schmidt had plenty of A-list help behind the camera, including multiple Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dean Cudney, whose camera work during the film’s battle scenes recalls Janusz Kaminski’s harrowing imagery from Saving Private Ryan.
In retrospect, Schmidt acknowledges, making the film “was a lot more work than I ever anticipated. It’s so much more than you realize — every little detail matters. If you want the film to come out with your vision, you have to be on top of every detail, you have to be right there guiding the process.”
A crucial part of that process involved how to tell the story of Rosenbaum within the constraints of a Hollywood feature film — which elements to include, which could be added without detracting from the story, what could be subtracted, etc.
“We made decisions on what we thought were important for the story,” he explains. “We wanted to film as tastefully as possible — the good and the bad in human nature — and still barely got a PG-13 rating.” (The Motion Picture Association of America “said it was too real” at first, Schmidt recounts, so he and his editors cut the film until it received the more audience-friendly rating.)
Instead of using only Arrow Cross uniforms, as Rosenbaum did, Elek also portrays an SS officer in some truly fraught scenes. But perhaps nowhere does Walking With the Enemy take more creative license than with its portrayal of Horthy. Kingsley plays Horthy as an honorable leader who is tortured by his ultimate inability to protect the country’s Jews.
According to Shapiro, nothing could be further from the truth. “He was a lifelong anti-Semite — he even writes that in his memoirs.”
Horthy’s deep and abiding fear of communism caused him to throw in his country’s lot with Germany in 1938. He remained allied with the Nazis until 1944, when he sensed the war tipping in the Red Army’s favor and he tried to join the Allies. It was at this point that the Nazis came into Hungary full force, treating it as a conquered nation instead of an ally, and began the 10-week operation that wiped out the majority of the country’s Jewish population.
Shapiro says it would be impossible to join forces with Hitler and not become part of the Holocaust. In fact, he says, before the Germans even entered the country, Horthy had caused the deaths of 20,000 Jews by forcing them over the border with Ukraine, essentially sealing their fates by pushing them into the waiting arms of the Nazis and their Ukrainian comrades.
“Horthy was fully aware that turning Jews over to Germans meant that they would be murdered,” emphasizes Shapiro, who has not seen the film.
But as is often the case with the fog of war, Horthy’s avowed antipathy toward his Jewish subjects didn’t translate into their immediate demise. Until the Germans deposed him after his failed attempt to join the Allies, he had successfully avoided turning over most Hungarian Jews to be deported.
With so much attendant ambiguity, Walking With the Enemy might be excused for altering the facts to better craft its message, especially when that message is an educational one.
Engaging in revisionist history in real life, though, is another matter entirely. That, says Shapiro, is exactly what is going on in Hungary today. The country’s resurgent, anti-Semitic right wing has been pushing to rehabilitate Horthy and other World War II figures during this commemorative year, even though the country’s own archives paint a chillingly clear picture of its participation in the Shoah.
“Every country would like to think it played no role,” he says. “But without local collaboration, the Holocaust would not have had the destructive power that it had."
Shapiro brings up a final point about the importance of both focusing attention to what happened in Hungary through vehicles like Walking With the Enemy and paying attention to the historical record: “A year from now, Hungary will become the chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance — a group that, in theory, works toward accurate Holocaust education.”