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updated: 4/24/2014 5:48 PM

'Walking' a true story from WWII Budapest

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  • Jonas Armstrong, left, and Mark Wells star in the fact-based World War II drama "Walking With the Enemy."

    Jonas Armstrong, left, and Mark Wells star in the fact-based World War II drama "Walking With the Enemy."

  • Video: "Walking With the Enemy" trail

By Stephanie Merry, The Washington Post

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.

Yet Mark Schmidt's "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 dungeons, redirects death-camp-bound Jews, halts 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 his German be good enough to allow him to travel 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 Miklos 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.

Both threads promise intense moments, but there are constant reminders of both oversimplification and dramatic exaggeration. A simple retelling of their stories would have been more dramatic, more effective and more powerful.

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