My Best Enemy: Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlinale 2011
Strained attempt at WWII tragi-comedy isn’t funny.

Trying to be amusing and respectfully serious at the same time, Austrian director Wolfgang Murnberger's film remains in limbo, saddled with an over-worked story, characters and setting.

BERLIN -- Austrian director Wolfgang Murnberger attempts to inject an underbelly of humor, or at least a touch of irony, in a silly tale of switched identities between a Nazi and a Jew during WWII. My Best Enemy barely squeaks by with its life. All comparison to Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds or Benigni’s Life is Beautiful are as far-fetched as citing Ernst Lubitsch and Charlie Chaplin as predecessors to this trivial enterprise, which takes the artistic risks of an episode of Hogan’s Heroes. Trying to be amusing and respectfully serious at the same time, the film remains in limbo, saddled with an over-worked story, characters and setting.

Genre cliches are reinforced by flat acting, and even the usually excellent Moritz Bleibtreu and Georg Friedrich are marched into stereotypes. So little does the film resemble the dry sense of humor in Murnberger’s top-grossing crime movies (Come Sweet Death, The Bone Man) that many fans will be thrown for a loop. Yet there actually are a few laughs here, and the perky, swift-moving pace promises some German box office. The rest of world will probably wait to watch it on TV.

Carefree, debonair Victor (Bleibtreu) is the wealthy son of Viennese art dealers, the Kaufmanns (the patrician Marthe Keller and Udo Samel.) It’s 1938, just before Germany takes over Austria, and he’s overjoyed when his childhood chum Rudi Smekal (Friedrich), the son of the family housekeeper, returns from Germany. Little does he know that Rudi has become an S.S. officer and will soon betray the Jewish Kaufmanns.

Most people would not trust the mousy, squint-eyed Rudi with the cookie jar, but Victor foolishly shows him a secret room where his father is hiding a rare drawing by Michelangelo, no less. Next day, the Nazis are pounding on the door to confiscate it as a present for Hitler. While the shocked Kaufmanns are escorted to a concentration camp, Rudi and his gloating cohorts make off with the drawing, or rather a forged copy of the original.

Discovering their mistake, the Nazis order Rudi to take Victor to Berlin for interrogation. But their plane is shot down by Polish partisans and, while Rudi is unconscious, Victor switches his filthy concentration camp rags for the other’s spiffy S.S. officer uniform. When the Germans show up, it’s Rudi who gets knocked around and insulted for being a wretched Jew. And that’s supposed to be the funny part.

The line between realism and humor is just too fine to work here. As situation comedy, Victor finding himself forced to play a Nazi, while nasty Rudi wails his innocence, is both strained and awkward. Intent on showing Victor as a hero, not a passive victim, Bleibtreu flaunts the misplaced aplomb of Cary Grant even when he steps out of the camp, conveniently wearing the same haircut as when he went in (with a shaved head, he’d be instantly recognizable, of course.) Friedrich is never likeable, though he’s supposed to be. Ursula Strauss, playing the girl both men love, fades in and out of the story.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition), Feb. 16.
Production company: Aichholzer Filmproduktion, Samsafilm.
Cast: Moritz Bleibtreu, Georg Friedrich, Ursula Strauss, Marthe Keller, Udo Samel.
Director: Wolfgang Murnberger.
Screenwriter: Paul Henge.
Producers: Josef Aichholzer, Jani Thiltges.
Director of photography: Peter von Haller.
Production designer: Isidor Wimmer.
Music: Matthias Weber.
Costumes: Martina List.
Editor: Evi Romen.
Sales Agent: Beta Cinema.
106 minutes.