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Friday, Sep. 9, 2011

'My Best Enemy'

A tale of a friendship torn apart by war — and by Hitler

In case you're ready to shy away from another Nazi war movie, it's my duty to inform you that "My Best Enemy" is yet another Nazi war movie — of, however, a different flavor.

My Best Enemy (Japan title: Michelangelo no Ango) Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
★ ★ ★ ?
My Best Enemy (Japan title: Michelangelo no Ango)
Reich and wrong: "My Best Enemy" explores the personal conflicts between two men who were childhood friends — one now a Nazi in Adolf Hitler's Third Reich, the other a Jew. ©2010 AICHHOLZER FILM & SAMSA FILM ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Director: Wolfgang Murnberger
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: German (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens Sept. 10, 2011
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Created by the team behind "The Counterfeiters," which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2008, "My Best Enemy" is actually a detective story set in Nazi Germany and starring German cinema's most prolific and iconic actor, 40-year-old Moritz Bleibtreu. Bleibtreu has played pimps and sex addicts, psychos and restaurant owners in over 40 titles, and he's been performing in front of the camera since the age of 6. He's fluent in four languages, has appeared in Hollywood productions and has won awards in prominent festivals across Europe.

The strange thing is this: Bleibtreu's most distinguishing feature is that he's hard to like. He sports a physical heaviness and an epidermal oiliness; remember that kid in grade school who was good at math but was a chunky snail on the playground, and exuded a mistrustful sneakiness? That's Moritz Bleibtreu, and he shows a positive genius here in pitching his personality somewhere between privileged Jewish son and scheming, ruthless conniver. In short, his is not a character you normally find in a Third Reich-related story, and this makes for some compelling viewing.

"My Best Enemy" is the story of a Jewish man who refuses to be victimized at a time when most of his friends and family are being murdered en masse in concentration camps. At the dawn of World War II, Victor Kaufmann (Bleibtreu) is the son of an art dealer in Munich — and he and his parents have some notion that wealth and prestige will see them through these dark times. Victor's buddy Rudi (Georg Friedrich), on the other hand, has no connections and is a pragmatist. He knows what's coming, and joins the Nazis to ensure job and personal security.

Victor unwittingly tells Rudi of an heirloom: an undiscovered drawing by Michelangelo stashed among his father's personal papers. Rudi, of course, leaks the information to the Nazis, who confiscate the treasure to use as a bargaining tool against Benito Mussolini. But Rudi is still Victor's friend, and negotiates safe passage out of Germany for Victor and his family as compensation. Once the drawing is in their hands, though, the Nazis ignore the deal and Victor is arrested knowing that his best friend has betrayed him.

Fast forward a few years — the Nazis are on the wane, while Victor and his mother are languishing in a concentration camp. Rudi turns up, incensed that the drawing turned out to be a fake and demanding to know the whereabouts of the genuine article. Unless Rudi can convince Victor to cough up the truth, his own career and most likely his life are in jeopardy.

"My Best Enemy" is not a masterpiece — the frame compositions are bland and straightforward and the editing is pretty much a matter of connecting the dots. Its bit of spark comes from the relationship between the two men, and how in the face of war and unspeakable atrocities they identify one another as their sole nemesis who must be destroyed. And in the meantime, there's the mystery of the Michelangelo, and the secret hiding place that's inscribed in code on the fake drawing. Does the real thing really exist, or is Victor pulling a mega-bluff to save himself and his mother?

The fact that Victor is Victor — a plump, pouting overgrown boy who manages to look well nourished even in a death camp — is (perversely) one of the main reasons the story works. Victor doesn't invite much sympathy, and even in the most dire of situations there's a twinge of an urge to laugh at his distress.

Rudi cuts a more tragic figure, but he's sly and opportunistic and hopelessly anal. As a Nazi he fails to incite terror, and only succeeds in looking like a unbending bureaucrat. The pair face off like a bull and a matador, but the match is ultimately desperate and graceless, underscoring the true tragedy of a bigger picture that injected a whole nation with brutal misery.

"There is no reason why you should live and I should die," says Rudi to Victor, but the same words could be fired right back at Rudi. Nazi and Jew — in the end the two men are each fearful of a violent, uncertain future, each staking his survival on a single simple drawing. Aloof and beautiful, the Michelangelo offers up a cruel contrast to the struggles of the two men.

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