Wolfgang Murnburger’s latest film tells the story of two lifelong friends, Rudi and Victor: when World War II breaks out, Rudi joins the Nazis and betrays Victor, who is Jewish. This is all I knew going into My Best Enemy (Mein bester Feind, 2010): if you, too, would like to enjoy a tense, original, emotional and darkly humorous film, trust me when I tell you that My Best Enemy is excellent—don’t spoil the surprises this film has in store by reading more about it.
If you are still curious, unconvinced or just can’t wait to see this film, I’ll fill you in on a few details. Victor Kaufmann comes from a wealthy family of Viennese art dealers. His friend Rudi Smekal grew up alongside him, as Rudi’s mother worked as the Kaufmanns’ housekeeper for 25 years. When the film begins, it is the early 1930s and Rudi has just returned from Germany where he became familiar with Nazi politics. At this point, acting as a good friend he warns Victor’s father to start transferring the family’s valuables to Switzerland for safekeeping. However, he also starts to show his self-interest, warning Victor’s girlfriend Lena that it isn’t a good time to marry a Jew. Rudi makes it clear that he would like Lena for himself.
Victor, meanwhile, completely trusts Rudi, and lets him in on a secret: the Kaufmanns own a valuable Michelangelo sketch. Rudi has just joined the SS, and to gain prestige he shares the Kaufmanns’ secret, but asks that the family be allowed to emigrate to safety. Rudi’s request is ignored: the drawing is confiscated and the Kaufmanns are taken to a concentration camp…but not before Victor’s father commissions a few fake Michelangelos to thwart the Nazis. Later in the war, the Germans want to present the Michelangelo to Mussolini as a symbol of solidarity. When they find out that their sketch is a fake, it is Rudi who is charged with finding out where the original sketch is. Rudi is taking Victor to Berlin for interrogation when their plane is shot down by Partisans, and Victor saves Rudi’s life. Fearing that partisans will find and shoot him, Rudi agrees to share Victor’s concentration camp uniform. When Victor sees that it is not the Partisans but the Nazis coming to find them, he hastily puts on Rudi’s SS uniform and steals his identity.
What makes My Best Enemy so original among WWII films is that rather than restricting all Jewish characters to the role of victims, it offers Victor the chance to take control of his situation, and even the option of revenge. He begins the film as a cocky and fun-loving young man and retains his pride and humanity even when he is in a concentration camp: it is both fitting and gratifying when Victor seizes the opportunity to control his own fate, to save himself and his loved ones. Victor, in fact, is very much like his father: although Jakob Kaufmann does not have the same opportunity to take action after he is interned, before he is sent to the concentration camp he takes the audacious step of having copies made of the Michelangelo. Later, at the concentration camp, he not only sends a cleverly coded message to his son to tell him where the original drawing is hidden: he also becomes renowned as a source of comfort and support to his fellow prisoners.
Victor’s irrepressible ironic humour makes My Best Enemy an unexpectedly funny film, not just a chilling and thrilling one. The director points out that there is an element of farce in the Nazis’ inability to get a hold of the right drawing. This comedy of ineptitude is reminiscent of the British approach to WWII humour, which focuses on the enemy’s ridiculousness. It is also reminiscent of Jaroslav Hašek’s Švejk, which is actually quoted in My Best Enemy.
The film courts controversy on three fronts. First, for incorporating comedy when treating a subject as grave as World War II. The film is unlikely to face much criticism on this account, however, as Roberto Benigni already took a much lighter, if bittersweet, approach with Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella, 1997). My Best Enemy is also safer with its use of comedy than Life is Beautiful because humour is never used in the context of concentration camps, where the film spends very little time. My Best Enemy‘s humour is ironic, and directed against the Nazis, so the film is unlikely to be accused of making light of the Holocaust.
Another possible point of criticism is that the film creates a fantasy situation for the entertainment of the audience. One counter to this criticism is that the scriptwriter, Paul Hengge, is Jewish and so is unlikely to have chosen this scenario for a WWII film without good reason. In his statement and interviews about the film, director Wolfgang Murnberger has also thought a great deal about the narrative: he felt reassured when he understood that some Jews don’t like that they are invariably portrayed as victims in WWII films. Even if the particular scenario that this film presents is fictional, it offers another way of communicating the bravery and determination that were necessary to survive.
There is additional interest in the fantasy scenario of the SS officer and the prisoner switching roles: it allows for more well-rounded and complex characters than in WWII films which create a black-and-white distinction between good victims and evil aggressors. When Victor dons the SS uniform, he experiences all the privileges and power that come with it, which provide a certain relief after the suffering and degradation of the concentration camp. He says that he can see why Rudi enjoyed it so much: it gave him the illusion of being a big-shot. In recent years there have been several WWII films that have moderated the traditional Manichean distinction by including unpleasant characteristics in some resistance fighters, and/or redeeming qualities in a few SS officers: Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book (2006) is one example. In an interview, Murnberger observed that if the film was going to be criticised, it would probably be because ‘the Nazis are depicted with too much humanity’. I think that he need not worry. For the most part, the Nazis in this film are as terrifying as usual: violent androids devoid of kindness and sympathy (at least towards those arbitrarily identified as their enemy, and often towards each other). It is only Rudi who has any redeeming characteristics, and still the audience will probably end up despising him: just because they can see why he acted the way he did, it doesn’t mean that they will excuse his behaviour. Ultimately, the film’s title is My Best Enemy, not My Best Friend, In Spite of Everything.