A letter from the enemy:
“I would like to complain about your movie reviewer, Scott Marks. He reviewed the movie Walking with the Enemy in this issue (April 24). That was some piece of jackass journalism, and that individual is a jackass journalist. He is very disrespectful how he treats that period of European history.
“Some of your readers have had family members killed during that ugly period of history and he treats it in a very disrespectful manner. He should not be working for your paper. It’s bad. He should not have made those references.
“You better review his work, because he’s a real jackass of a journalist. You should have someone else rewrite the review and reprint it.
— Paul Student, San Carlos”
Student, meet your teacher. Just because one thinks every copy of this ploddingly remedial, factually unfettered history lesson should be run through a wood chipper doesn’t automatically make one pro-Holocaust. I’m not treating “that ugly period of history” in a disrespectful manner, the filmmakers are! For your information, Student, I’m one Jew — no doubt a self-loathing one in your eyes — who is fed up with movies that trivialize the Holocaust, no matter how well their intentions may be.
Doesn’t it sicken you that many were first to learn about the Holocaust from Spielberg’s highly-fictionalized Disneyland attraction, Oskar Schindler and the Temple of Doom? It’s easy to blame somnolent high school history teachers, but in the case of these fanciful Holocaust adventure pictures, guys like Spielberg and Mark Schmidt assume the position of educators. It’s their responsibility not to play fast and loose with the facts of “that ugly period of history” in order to better shape their clumsy narratives.
You obviously disliked the intentional in-your-face tone of my review, but what exactly did I say about Schmidt’s comic book approach to the Holocaust that was inaccurate? Whenever the action slows down, Schmidt and his myriad of screenwriters decide to pep things up by having stock Nazi buffoons mow down Jews. Were it not for cliches and happenstance, there’d be no screenplay. The dialog is contrived and the acting sub-par. Even the generally unfailing Ben Kingsley trudges through the paces like Karloff’s mummy. Worst of all, it sentimentalizes mass genocide.
For once, this cheese doesn’t stand alone. You want someone else to review the picture for you, Student? How’s about NPR’s Ella Taylor who called it, “An old-school drama so sincere, yet so ham-fisted, it borders on parody.” John Anderson at Newsday said it’s “so emotionally obvious and awkwardly handled that it doesn’t deserve much consideration as a political or historical statement.”
I’m not done. Nick LaSalle at the San Francisco Chronicle likened it to “To Be Or Not to Be, only without Jack Benny, or Hogan’s Heroes without the jokes.” And how’s this for an ouch: David Hiltbrand at the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “A badly written, poorly acted, bathetic pageant of bad wigs and worse accents, rendered with production values on a par with NBC’s recent Sound of Music mummery.”
If there is one lesson to be taken from this piece of sentimental hogwash it’s that the Holocaust is one of the few subjects that should seldom, if ever, be given a fictionalized treatment. For every quality fact-based narrative (Enemies: A Love Story, Eurpopa, Europa, Adam Resurrected) there have been dozens of maudlin variations – don’t get me started on The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas!
Here’s your assignment, Student: go to Kensington Video and rent Alan Resnais’ Night and Fog. Shot in 1955, Resnais was one of the first, if not the first documentarian allowed access to the abandoned death camps. Everything one needs to know about how to properly document the atrocities is contained in this powerful 32 minute short and the tears shed while watching do not flow at the expense of cheap pathos. You’re welcome!
In closing, we must never forget the one Holocaust movie that remains to be seen, a picture that will someday have the last word: Jerry Lewis’ never-released The Day the Clown Cried. To films like Walking With the Enemy that paint the bloody facts in tear-inducing shades of rosewater red, I proudly proclaim, “Never again!”