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Movie Review

In the Presence of Mine Enemies

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and some scenes of violence

Reviewed by: Brett Willis

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Older Teen to Adult
War, Drama
1 hr. 36 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
Relevant Issues
Featuring: Armin Mueller-Stahl, Elina Löwensohn, Don McKellar, Charles Dance, Chad Lowe, Tony Nardi
Director: Joan Micklin Silver
Producer: Nelle Nugent, Kenneth Teaton
Distributor: Foxboro Company Productions, Hallmark Entertainment and Showtime Networks Inc., Evergreen Entertainment

Not to be confused with the Vietnam War POW story of the same title, this is a WWII drama set in the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland. it’s a for-cable remake of an old “Playhouse 90” TV show scripted by Rod Serling (host of TV’s “The Twilight Zone”). The title is a quote from Psalm 23:5, which speaks of God taking care of people in the most adverse situations.

Rabbi Adam Heller (Armin Mueller-Stahl, “The 13th Floor,” “Jakob the Liar,” “Mission to Mars”) and his daughter Rachel (Elina Löwensohn, “Schindler’s List”), like all other Jews, face starvation and the constant threat of being sent to the death camps. The Rabbi, a peaceful man, tries to encourage others to have hope and continue to pray. But when stretched beyond the breaking point he, like his son before him, begins to give up his faith in a God who seemingly doesn’t see their suffering. There are examples of self-sacrifice as well as examples of cold hatred on both sides of the conflict. The apparent intent is to show that no matter what situation we’re in, we can choose how to respond to it.

Content Notes and Warnings

There’s almost no profanity; the only harsh words are some despairing anti-God statements, and Rachel’s brother calling her demeaning names because she accepts help from a guilt-ridden SS Sergeant. There are scenes of people being “selected;” two on-screen killings, neither one graphic; and an offscreen implied rape. The daily horrors of Nazi brutality and the gunfire of the first Warsaw Ghetto uprising in January 1943 are handled as background noises. Although the threat of death runs throughout, the film avoids offensive visual content to the point that it seems more like a stage play.

Moviemaking Quality

The lead roles are all competent actors, and do a good job. What I dislike is that several events are unrealistic; they theoretically could have happened, but are so farfetched that the film is historically misleading. An SS Captain calls for Rachel, and it’s implied that he forces himself on her. [See Historical Note 1 below] The actions of the SS Sergeant are equally unrealistic. He gets away with disobeying his Captain’s direct orders, and later risks his own life trying to help Rachel escape from the Ghetto. (Perhaps the film was intended as a morality play rather than historical drama. I see no reason why it couldn’t have been both. I’m not saying I want films to be more offensive; but I believe that a sensitive subject like this should be treated as honestly as possible.) Also, there’s a scene where a Ghetto resident with a handgun is shot by a passing truckload of German soldiers; but even though there’s no other resistance activity and the soldiers are not in further danger, they drive on by without recovering the weapon.

The principles taught by the surprise ending are worth thinking about, but I was disappointed in the path the story took to get to that ending.

Historical Note 1

SS officers were taught that Jews were “subhuman,” so that sex with a Jew would be like sex with an animal. In fact, although bullets were scarce it was considered better to execute Jews by shooting than by beating, because it was important that the SS never take a chance on touching Jewish flesh in any way. Even if a particular officer knew that all this was just Nazi hogwash, unquestioned obedience to orders would still hold him back. In one SS Officers’ school, each student was given a German Shepherd dog and allowed to bond with it for several months. (The students probably assumed that the dogs would be used to help them sniff people out of hiding, or something like that.) Then one day, without warning, the instructor would order the student to strangle his dog. Any student who hesitated before carrying out the order was immediately dismissed. Conclusion: Those who finished this course and actually became SS Officers had to commit moral and intellectual suicide in the process. No room for individuality or personal opinions.

Historical Note 2

After the failed January uprising, there was a general uprising in April 1943 which momentarily startled the SS and which ended with the Ghetto being liquidated (as it would have been anyway). Accounts of the April uprising can be found in the following books: “Mila 18” by Leon Uris (fictionalized) or “The Bravest Battle” by Dan Kurzman (nonfiction).

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