"Clothes make the man," the saying goes and in the film "My Best Enemy" the donning of an SS uniform becomes a crucial act, determining the fate of both of its protagonists. In the Austrian-made Nazi satire, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Jewish hero masquerades as an SS officer in a bid to outwit his oppressors and survive the Holocaust.
With films such as "Downfall" and "A Woman in Berlin," German and Austrian filmmakers have shown in recent years their willingness to explore their troubled histories. Still, they have been hesitant to take a humorous approach to subjects as loaded as the Third Reich and the Holocaust. But films from abroad, such as Italy's "Life is Beautiful" and Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," may have gradually chipped away at their reluctance.
"Slowly it is changing, so that when one makes a film about this period one does not have to only use realism and tragedy," Wolfgang Murnberger, the Austrian director of "My Best Enemy," told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The guilt that the Germans and Austrians bear does not have to be at the forefront of the film."
Written by a 77-year-old Holocaust Survivor
Murnberger admits, however, that it was a risk taking on a sensitive topic of the Holocaust and turning it into a comedy. He only felt comfortable doing so, he says, because the script was written by Paul Hengge, a 77-year-old Jewish Austrian writer and Holocaust survivor.
For Murnberger, the fact that the protagonist in the film is Jewish made the project particularly attractive. He says that most films made about the Holocaust tend to only portray the Jews as victims, but in "My Best Enemy" the idea was "to switch things around and have a film where the Jews are not just standing behind the barbed wire in the concentration camp, but where the Jewish hero gives the Nazis the run around."
That hero is Victor Kaufmann, played by well-known German star Moritz Bleibtreu. Kaufmann is the debonair son of a wealthy Jewish art dealer and gallery owner living in Vienna on the eve of World War II. Unbeknownst to him, his life-long friend, Rudi Smekal, has joined the Nazis.
The Difference between Artifice and Authenticity
Rudi, the son of the family's housekeeper, is determined to do well for himself in the new political landscape, even if it means turning on his friend. He betrays the Kaufmanns, revealing to his superiors that the family is in possession of a priceless Michelangelo drawing, and setting in motion a chain of events in which differentiating between artifice and authenticity becomes a matter of life and death.
The Nazis deport the Kaufmanns to a concentration camp, rather than allowing them to escape to Switzerland. It then emerges that the confiscated sketch, which Hitler plans to present to Il Duce personally, is a fake. The pressure is on Rudi and his superior officer to use whatever means necessary to persuade Victor, now a camp inmate, to reveal the original's location.
While the first part of the film relies on melodrama to tell the familiar tale of a Jewish family who waited too long to flee the clutches of the Nazi death machine, it is only when Rudi is sent to fetch Victor to retrieve the drawing, and both end up the sole survivors of a plane crash, that the comedy really kicks in.
Walking a Cinematic Tightrope
Murnberger always wanted there to be both serious and comedic elements to the film. He says he wanted to make a tragicomedy, with the characters portrayed in a realistic way, and tension as a backdrop throughout. He admits, though, that walking the tightrope between comedy and tragedy was the biggest challenge in making the film.
It is a tightrope that, for the most part, Murnberger walks almost too carefully. Known for hit comedy thrillers like "The Bone Man," this is the Austrian director's first historical film, and, if anything, he is too respectful of the subject matter. The initial fears that the film would be in bad taste are allayed early on. This is subtle black humor, the kind to elicit a wry smile and an occasional laugh at the preposterousness of the situations in which the main characters find themselves. And while that comedy is enough to keep the audience amused without feeling too guilty, and the plot is clever without causing confusion, it is the tragic elements that don't always work. Somehow the desperate plight of those caught up in the Nazi terror is not entirely convincing.
Bleibtreu's wise-cracking attempt to be a kind of cross between Cary Grant and James Bond is endearing, yet he doesn't manage to convey the mortal danger his character is in. And the jowly actor must be the best fed and well-groomed inmate ever to see the inside of a concentration camp. It is perhaps also unfortunate that the shock of seeing the Jewish hero dressed in a Nazi uniform is undermined by the fact that Bleibtreu so recently portrayed Goebbels in last year's Berlinale flop "Jud Süss."
Meanwhile, Ursula Strauss plays the part of Lena, Victor's childhood sweetheart, who Rudi also loves, with warmth and intelligence. Yet her role is always serious, as if women can't be funny even in a comedy, and she doesn't really have much to do apart from one crucial scene in which she has to decide on the spot which man she loves.
Facing Austria's History
Georg Friedrich, as the opportunistic Rudi, is perhaps the most successful figure in the film. His initial charm and loyalty are undermined by weakness of character and fatal ambition. This is not a one-dimensional baddie, but a guy making all the wrong choices in life. In fact, he embodies what Murnberger thinks of those Austrians who went along with the regime because it suited them.
"Austria has certainly not worked through its history in the way that Germany has," he points out. "Austria has long liked to portray itself as Hitler's first victim, even though Hitler was Austrian."
When, towards the end of the film, Rudi shrugs his shoulders and tells Victor: "Don't think I don't know what it is to have a bad conscience," it is an apology without any attempt at making amends. "Austrians have believed that it's enough to say that and to do nothing," Murnberger says.
Where the film works best is in its portrayal of ridiculous pettiness, backstabbing and naked ambition within the totalitarian system. It is all about currying the favor and fearing the wrath of the superior officer, the person above you in the chain of command.
"This is how a dictatorship functions," Murnberger argues. "People are like cogs in the wheel, and they are only afraid of the next cog. That fear of the next Nazi higher up, that is what held the entire Nazi system together."