Based on a true-life story taking place in the final 18 months of World War II, ‘Walking with the Enemy’ has garnered a lot of attention as it prepares to settle on a release date. The story centers around Hungarian leader Regent Horthy (Sir Ben Kingsley) who fearing that the Axis Powers will eventually lose the war, begins to break-off his relationship with his Nazi counterparts. Because of this, the Jewish population of Hungary is suddenly no longer protected from the desperate German effort to carry out Hitler’s final solution.
This film was inspired by the true story of Pinchas Rosenbaum, WALKING WITH THE ENEMY.  The Nazis are desperately trying to enact their genocide against Jews in Hungary, who had been protected from persecution until their leader Regent Horthy (Sir Ben Kingsley) was forced to bow to the will of Hitler and Eichmann.  Hoping to find his displaced family and avoid being placed in a labor camp, young Elek Cohen (Jonas Armstrong) undertakes extraordinary measures to survive, using a stolen uniform to pose as a Nazi officer so that he can reroute Jews to safety and disrupt the activities of the German occupiers.
WALKING WITH THE ENEMY is inspired by a true story that is little-known to American audiences, but well-known in Hungary, where a man very much like Elek managed to successfully wage his own secret war against the Nazis while the larger struggle for Eastern Europe waged all around him. Hungary had a very unique relationship to Germany during the war. During the 1930s and the worldwide depression, Hungary grew to rely on the economic assistance of Axis powers Germany and Italy. They joined the Axis early on in the war, but their relationship to Germany was always strained. 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. At one point, Hungary attempted to sign an armistice with Russia that was intercepted – an act that forced Hitler and his military leaders to reconsider the ways in which their putative “ally” should be contributing to the dying cause of the Reich.
In WALKING WITH THE ENEMY, Academy Award-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley plays the beleaguered Hungarian leader Regent Horthy. Despite his official alliance with Germany, Horthy’s main focus during the war was to protect the people of Hungary regardless of what his German allies asked him to do. Remarkably for the time, this included the protection of Hungary’s Jews, who made up about six percent of the population, but 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.
“Horthy was the only European leader who wouldn’t allow the Germans to march through his country, and refused to deport any Jews – he played cards with Jewish friends regularly,” says Schmidt. 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 very little awareness of what was happening to their cousins and families elsewhere.
For Mark Schmidt, the message and meaning of the film assured him that the effort, no matter how unlikely or monumental, would be worth it. It made sense that WALKING WITH THE ENEMY would be undertaken by Schmidt and producer Randy Williams for Liberty Studios. “Our mission is to make films honoring individuals who exhibit great acts of courage or extraordinary feats,” says Schmidt.
With a complicated production schedule and shooting locations in both Europe and the United States, Schmidt and Williams hired quality professionals in order to make an authentic and meaningful period film.
Schmidt wanted to go for a “more classic” feel that would allow the inspiring story to shine during this dark time of war. “That was one of our challenges,” Schmidt says regarding the “how” of showing the horrors of war without traumatizing the audience. “What do you take away from these violent events but still keep it real? I tried to keep it as tasteful as possible.”
Producer Randy Williams notes that these decisions about how to ethically and responsibly tell their story is part and parcel of the mission of Liberty Studios.
Ultimately, their principal crew included Academy Award-nominees like cinematographer Dean Cundey (“Apollo 13,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” among his dozens of blockbuster credits) and editor Richard Nord (“The Fugitive”). “Everyone was inspired by the story, and we had a mutual enthusiasm in getting this story out to the world,” Schmidt says of putting his crew together.
As far as taking on the role of Regent Horthy, Schmidt says, “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.”
The same was true of the cast, most of them from Great Britain, along with the US and Europe, who were also moved by Elek’s story and the opportunity to bring this unique story to life. “We knew that for the part of Elek, we wanted the right actor.” 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 be exactly the right combination of experience and ability that was needed to bring Elek to life. “He is an amazing artist that can internalize a role. We were lucky to be able to get someone like Jonas to fill the part.”
The message behind WALKING WITH THE ENEMY and the passion for those who made it seems to have inspired audiences as well. As the producers assembled and refined their final cut, they were encouraged by sell-out crowds at film festivals, which have brought similar responses. For Schmidt, that’s only proof that a story with the right message told the right way can be successful. “I’ve been pretty lucky in my life,” Schmidt admits, “so I have deep respect for the people who succeed when they really have the odds against them.”