Based on an earnest teleplay by Rod Serling (originally produced for TV's "Playhouse 90" in 1960), IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES plays to all the strengths (beautifully attuned dialogue, timeless soul-searching) and weaknesses (didactic overstatement of themes, oversimplification of characters into mouthpieces) of prime-time Serling. In this plangent...read more
Based on an earnest teleplay by Rod Serling (originally produced for TV's "Playhouse 90" in 1960), IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES plays to all the strengths (beautifully attuned dialogue, timeless soul-searching) and weaknesses (didactic overstatement of themes, oversimplification of
characters into mouthpieces) of prime-time Serling. In this plangent condemnation of the Holocaust, powerful passages about surviving in the Warsaw Ghetto intersect with heavy-handed philosophizing about the human spirit.
Rabbi Adam Heller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) does his utmost to nourish his battered flock in WWII Poland. As the occupying Nazis either starve or deport the residents to death camps, Rabbi Heller wills his followers to maintain their dignity. Although local commandant Capt. Richter (Charles Dance)
regards his charges as less than human, his junior officer, Sgt. Lott (Chad Lowe), shows glimmers of humanity toward Rabbi Heller's daughter Rachel (Elina Lowensohn).
The morbid routine of petitioning for news of the dead and foraging for food wears down the Rabbi's ability to function. When his son Paul (Don McKellar) escapes from a labor camp, Rabbi Heller is unprepared for Paul's disgust at his father's policy of appeasement. Worse degradation awaits the
Heller family as Capt. Richter orders Sgt. Lott to bring Rachel to his quarters for sex; though he loves Rachel himself, Lott complies. Outraged at his father's pragmatic lack of resistance against Richter, Paul vows to go on a rampage against Nazis. Although Paul denounces his family's friend,
Joseph Chinik (John Dunn-Hill), for being a goy, it is he who sacrifices himself when the Nazis come looking for reckless Paul. As typhus spreads, the concentration camp roundups accelerate. Moved by Rachel's plight, Sgt. Lott decides to desert and take her with him. Blinded by his rabid hatred,
Paul thwarts their flight through the city's sewers. So that his daughter can live, Rabbi Heller shoots his son. Lott and Rachel flee while the Warsaw Rebellion, arguably the bravest mass act of Jewish courage of the era, begins.
Despite some well-hewn performances, IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES flounders due to unimaginative direction and strident acting in some quarters. At times, the Jewish supporting players act like Fiddler on the Roof castoffs. Instead of building a characterization, Dance borrows Teutonic gestures
he must have picked up from anti-Hitler propaganda flicks. These casting vagaries do irreparable harm to a sensitive project that required kid-gloves treatment. Also, there's something bogusly melodramatic about the vignettes chosen to trumpet the theme of spiritual survival (e.g., the neurotic
man who wants to build a wall around himself so that the Nazis won't be able to find him). In SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993), Steven Spielberg's visual dexterity in freezing images in time underscored the suspenseful screenplay. This cable-TV production wallows in bleakness until we're wriggling in our
seats, tuning out the atrocities. (Violence, profanity, adult situations.)
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