cast: Moritz Bleibtreu, Georg Friedrich, Udo Samel, Marthe Keller, and Ursula Strauss
director: Wolfgang Murnberger
109 minutes (15) 2011
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2
[released 12 September]
review by Ian Sales
The Second World War casts a long shadow. Sixty-five years later, films are still being made about it, and set during it. Perhaps this is because it affected the lives of so many people and the histories of so many nations. It remains to be seen whether, in the second half of the 21st century, the wars of recent years such as Iraq or Afghanistan will be topics for popular entertainment. I suspect not.
That said, after more than half a century, you might wonder what was left to be said about the events of WWII, or what lessons remained to be learned. Or, indeed, how the incidents of those times reflect on our world today. Which is not say the genre of war films does not have its equivalent of crass semi-historical ‘first person shooter’ movies. Happily, My Best Enemy (aka: Mein bester Feind) is not one of them.
Viktor (Moritz Bleibtreu) is the son of wealthy Viennese art gallery owner Jakob Kaufmann (Udo Samel). Shortly before the Second World War begins, close family friend Rudi Smekal (Georg Friedrich) returns after several years abroad. Smekal’s mother was the Kaufmann’s housekeeper, and Viktor and Rudi grew up as close as brothers. But the Kaufmanns are Jews, and the Nazis are gaining power in Austria. So much so that Smekal, envious of the Kaufmann’s riches and angry at what he sees as condescension, joins the NSDAP and becomes a sergeant in the SS.
Meanwhile, at a press conference in his gallery, Jakob Kaufmann admits he once had in his possession a lost sketch of Moses by Leonardo da Vinci. One night, after a few too many schnapps, Viktor shows Rudi a secret room in the family home, and hidden in a secret drawer in a desk in that room, is the da Vinci sketch of Moses.
When Rudi’s superior learns of this, he immediately spots an opportunity for advancement. Mussolini is due to visit Hitler in Berlin, and it would be a major political coup to present Il Duce with the da Vinci sketch. It doesn’t matter that the Kaufmanns own it, because they are Jews. So the SS raid the Kaufmann residence… but the sketch is not there. The family are shipped off to the camps. Rudi then finds the sketch, which had been hidden. He also moves into the house, and becomes engaged to Viktor’s girlfriend (Lena Ursula Strauss), to whom the Kaufmanns had transferred their property so they would not lose it.
Except that copy of the sketch Rudi found proves to be a fake, and the German high command panic. Rudi is tasked with flying Viktor from the camp back to Vienna to retrieve the real sketch. But the plane crashes en route, and only Viktor and Rudi survive (it is the plane crash which actually opens the film, and the first half of the movie is a flashback). When the Germans turn up to rescue the survivors, Viktor has taken Rudi’s place and is posing as an SS officer. He must keep up the pretence long enough to allow himself and his mother – Jakob Kaufmann died in the camps – to escape to Switzerland…
Having said all that, there is something slightly off about My Best Enemy. It’s not simply having a Jew masquerade as a SS officer – in the context of the story, he does it to survive and to rescue his mother; and the masquerade does not make him complicit in the war crimes of the SS. However, having the da Vinci sketch as the story’s maguffin, and the SS’s burning desire to appropriate it in order to gift it to Il Duce, does render the Jewishness of the Kaufmanns almost incidental to the plot. It’s as if the film is making use of the Holocaust to drive its own caper story, when something so horrific and abhorrent really should not be marginalised.
This is not to say that My Best Enemy is not a well-played piece, although Friedrich as Rudi mumbles a lot and does not much resemble the popular image of an SS officer. The mise-en-scène is good – the film is a period piece and evokes its period effectively. It is, overall, an entertaining and well-made film. Perhaps it pushes to the edges of the story events it shouldn’t do but, on the other hand, it’s worse to pretend such things never happened.