Berlin 2011 Review: MEIN BESTER FIEND (My Best Enemy)

[rating: 2.5] I fear Mein Bester Feind (My Best Enemy), which screened out of competition at Berlinale, is one for…

Robert Beames


[rating: 2.5]

I fear Mein Bester Feind (My Best Enemy), which screened out of competition at Berlinale, is one for the German crowd only. The World War Two farce/body swap comedy/holocaust movie passed me by almost completely, looking camp, silly and seeming in slightly poor taste. A German-speaking friend explained to me that a lot of the jokes were very geared towards a home crowd, culturally and in terms of language. This, I suppose, will have to do as an explanation for the huge belly-laughs it generated for most of the audience. Well that, or chronic sense of humour failure on my part.

The central premise is complicated: a pair of Austrian best friends – one of whom is a Jew – are turned against each other by the 1938 annexing of Austria and the outbreak of the Second World War. It’s a set-up reminiscent I suppose of Disney’s The Fox and the Hound, with the men ending up on opposing sides and as fierce enemies, with traces of their past shining through. The Jewish Victor Kaufmann (Moritz Bleibtreu) is the son of an art gallery owner and knows the whereabouts of a rare Michaelangelo drawing that Mussolini would like returned to Italy.

A few years later, it’s 1942 and the oppression of the Jews and the war are approaching their bloodiest. Hitler wants to return the rare drawing to the Italian government to boost his Axis with Il Duce – only the Nazis don’t know where it has been hidden. The only living man who does know is Kaufman, who is now in a concentration camp in Nazi occupied Poland (though he does not appear to have suffered at all physically from the four year ordeal). His old friend Rudi (Georg Friedrich), now an SS officer, is tasked with bringing him to Berlin by plane for interrogation. However the plane is shot down and Victor rescues his old friend from the wreckage.

The story gets more interesting from here as Victor tricks Rudi into swapping uniforms with him – telling him that Polish Partisans are advancing on them and will shoot a Nazi on sight. However it is the Germans who in fact arrive on the scene first and mistake Victor for the officer and Rudi for the Jewish prisoner. This is where is comedy really begins with gusto, and here the film acts as a revenge fantasy (a la Inglourious Basterds) and as a parody of Nazism. Victor both inflicts pain and humiliation on Rudi whilst also mocking the Nazi protocol with his mimicry – undermining their racism with his ability to convincingly trade roles with an “Aryan”.

The scenes in which Victor turns tables on the Nazis are really well done, in terms of the writing and the acting, with the charismatic Bleibtreu really very funny. The twists and turns the movie takes with the painting are also well done, although the twist is very obviously telegraphed for anyone paying attention. It is still satisfying but for many will not come as a surprise.

Where it fell down for me was that it looked cheap and, especially as I didn’t understand many of the jokes, it often felt more like a misjudged drama than a good comedy. I accept that this is likely a cultural/language issue rather than a fault of the film itself (comedy rarely survives translation in tact), yet I can only review the film I saw and not the one I saw many other people enjoying so much. I also found that, for such a potentially provocative core concept, the film is also not inclined to go for anything but the broad easy laugh.

There is one brief moment of real interest and intellectual complexity which occurs after Victor first dons the SS uniform. He stands in front of a mirror and for a tantalising moment appears to admire himself – a fleeting nod in the direction of the idea that he too might have been seduced by the power and glamour of Nazism had he not been born so far on the other side of it. But the film isn’t interested in pursuing these more complex ideas and doesn’t delve into the route causes of the genocide. It is content to play everything for populist laughs, perhaps understandably. And for many in the audience it worked very well as it was as a straight comedy. But by reducing Nazis to the level of cartoon characters you also risk diminishing their crimes.