Wolfgang Murnberger’s twist-heavy World War II-set My Best Enemy would play as an absurdist comedy if the director wasn’t so dead set on excluding just about any trace of humor from his self-serious project. Of course, in crafting a cinematic recreation of the Nazi era in Austria, looking for yuks would naturally be a dicey proposition, but with all its narrative doublebacks and cases of switched identity, the film might well have employed a distanced, cosmic comedy to comment on the absurdity and arbitrariness of being born either Jewish or gentile.
In fact, Murnberger and screenwriter Paul Hengge do weigh in on the shiftiness of identity that gives the lie to Nazi notions of racial superiority, but only in ways too obvious to enlarge any sort of historical understanding. When, in 1939, Victor Kaufmann (Moritz Bleibtreu), the son of an affluent Jewish art dealer in Vienna, hides a prized Michelangelo sketch from the SS, substituting a forgery, the trick seems to work. At least, that is, until 1943, when Hitler wants to make a gift of the sketch to Mussolini and an art expert detects the fake. SS officer Rudi Smekal (Georg Friedrich), a childhood friend of Victor’s who nonetheless remains resentful about his old pal’s family’s pre-war wealth, is placed in charge of tracing down Victor and the real Michelangelo. But following a plane crash, Victor seizes the moment to trade uniforms with the injured Rudi and force his old friend to play the Jew, while he masquerades as a Nazi.
The key sequence in the film finds Victor, playing Rudi, firmly ensconced in his SS office, while he interrogates Rudi-as-Victor, alternatively putting on a show of force for his superiors and offering tentative moments of kindness toward his old friend. These scenes generate a certain amount of tension as we wonder how long it will take the Nazis to get wise to the switch, and Murnberger slyly uses the different appearances of his actors (Bleibtreu’s Semitic features versus Friedrich’s Aryan look) to comment on the all-importance of such arbitrary signifiers as a uniform to classify a person’s status.
But even in this sequence, so rife with possibilities for a complex understanding of identity, Murnberger can’t manage more than a few surface-level ambiguities. Yes, Victor is forced to turn his fists on his old friend to prove his Nazi-ness, but there’s only the barest hint that this newfound power in the midst of impotence might prove tempting for the victimized prisoner. (In its suggestion of, but failure to probe these fantasies, My Best Enemy might be considered Inglourious Basterds ultra-lite, lacking that film’s stubborn commitment both to shuffling the power plays of history and to edgy humor, though fortunately without its questionably flippant worldview either.)
Similarly, this sequence asks the viewer to identify in a troubling way with both Nazis and “Nazis.” Rooting for Victor, as we’re inevitably led to do, we’re called on to pull for him to convince his senior officers of his disguise, even when it means a provisional acceptance of his beatings of Rudi. But the implications of this temporarily forced Nazi-oriented viewpoint aren’t probed, probably because they would upset the delicate, non-threatening balance of the film. Instead, Murnberger prefers to return us to a world of perfectly lit, chiaroscuro compositions where the violence is always just off screen and nothing ever seems very dangerous. What’s significant about the Holocaust here isn’t that millions of people lost their lives, but that it presented the possibility that a Michelangelo sketch might fall into the wrong hands. Like so much else in this film, there’s an overriding absurdity to this fact, an absurdity that, here as elsewhere, Murnberger seems only to have minimally grasped.