|Enemy at the Gates|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 14 August 2001|
The movie takes place during the Battle of Stalingrad, the most important Eastern Front battle of World War II, but one which very rarely been depicted in movies shown in the U.S. (The film itself is a US-German-British-Irish coproduction.) That's because after World War II, the Cold War made it virtually impossible to depict Russian characters in a sympathetic light; too bad, because Stalin was a tyrant, but there were many tales of great heroism among soviet soldiers.
Jude Law plays Vassili Zaitsev, a real hero of the war. We first see young Vassili being trained by his grandfather to shoot wolves (the real Zaitsev more realistically shot game they could eat). Then we're thrust into a nightmarish scene of adult Vassili crossing the Volga to Stalingrad, while being bombed, shelled and strafed by the Germans who are trying to take over the city: bodies spurt blood and tumble into the river; fleeing soldiers are gunned down by their officers. In the city, there are so few rifles only one is handed out for every two soldiers; when his partner is killed, Vassili finally gets a gun, and begins demonstrating his unerring aim.
He's befriended by Danilov (Joseph Fiennes); he's an intellectual -- we can tell because he wears glasses -- a Jew, a political officer and an enthusiastic propagandist. When the newly-arrived Nikita Khrushchev (a vigorous Bob Hoskins) starts shooting failed officers, demanding a way to defeat the Germans, Danilov suggests that they need a hero. And that Vassili Zaitsev could be that hero.
So during the Battle of Stalingrad, which rages mostly offscreen, Vassili begins picking off German officers. His deadly abilities as a sniper are heavily reported on in the Soviet press, and he does indeed become a hero, the principal sniper among many.
Between stalking, waiting and shooting, he and Danilov are both attracted to Tania (Rachel Weisz), also an intellectual, also a Jew, and also a sniper. Women did serve heroically in the Soviet Army during World War II, and according to Soviet records, the real Zaitsev did fall in love with a woman sniper. They're also friendly with young Sacha (Gabriel Marshall-Thomsom), a boy who survives by dealing with both the Germans and the Russians.
Not unexpectedly, Zaitsev's deadly aim even makes him famous among the Germans, who call in expert marksman Major Konig (Ed Harris), who's so famous that he arrives in Stalingrad on his own private train, watched with angry envy by German foot soldiers. Konig's mission: kill Zaitsev.
If the movie had focused more intently on the duel between Zaitsev and Konig, it would have been a stronger, more exciting film, and ultimately more believable. Some historians question whether this duel ever took place, but Zaitsev's gun and Konig's telescopic sight are preserved in the war museum in Stalingrad. It's amazing that such a vividly colorful story has never been told on screen before; even the movie called "Stalingrad" didn't depict the duel.
Jude Law is very good as Zaitsev; he's a peasant from the Urals, intelligent and warm-hearted, but unsophisticated and open. For someone this handsome, it's amazing the range he's exhibited so far, from the breezy, arrogant but likable victim in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" to this all-Russian hero. He's so realistically lower class that Danilov's statement that the duel between the aristocratic Konig and Vassili "is the essence of class struggle" rings true.
Harris tends to be a little stiff, generally speaking, and occasionally mannered; however, both those traits are perfectly suited to his role as Konig. The Major is an aloof, distant man, his perfectly tailored uniform a mismatch with the chaos around him. Harris deep blue eyes seem to be reflecting the ice within the man, while Law's equally blue eyes seem warm.
Joseph Fiennes is trapped in a hapless role, and plays the role in broad strokes. There really was a political officer/journalist assigned to Vassili, so there's historical precedent for Danilov, but Annaud and Godard have forced goopy romantic sentimentality onto the character. Danilov finally takes steps to get Tania for himself, but it's a completely unbelievable turn of events, and one that makes hash of Danilov's personality as we've seen it to that point. It's a terrible idea, and deeply damages the already compromised movie.
Rachel Weisz is almost as chameleon-like as Jude Law, though she can't hide her great beauty. She appeared opposite Joseph Fiennes' brother Ralph in "Sunshine," and with Brendan Fraser in "The Mummy" and its sequel. But though Weisz does good work, it's very hard to escape the feeling that the character is extraneous.
Much like the soldier played by Ron Perlman. He's there to establish the horribleness of the Soviet regime, and the deadly reputation of Konig. With steel teeth and an unaccountable British accent, Perlman can hardly help being noticed, but again, he seems forced into the material. Bob Hoskins, clearly enjoying himself as Khrushchev, seems again mostly to demonstrate how terrible the Soviet leaders were. Krushchev really was a hero of Stalingrad; knowledge of how he behaved later undoubtedly colored the writing, but probably not for the better.
Technically, the film is superb; computer graphic effects and mattes have been expertly used to create the Stalingrad of the winter of 1942-43. The rubble and ruin, dotted here and there with statues of Stalin, some standing, some fallen, create a sense of chaos and continuing destruction. So does the well-designed sound (Eddy Joseph is the supervising sound editor); with rumbles and explosions coming from the surround speakers, we're constantly reminded that Stalingrad is a city under siege.
The sound mix is equally fine in this handsome DVD; excellent, involving use is made of side and rear speakers, especially in Chapter 2 (crossing the Volga), as well as in Chapter 3 (more battle), and Chapters 7 and 12 (76:00 into the film), in which CGI planes bomb the shattered city. One important area of sound often overlooked by audiences is that big empty buildings have a distinctive ambiance in terms of sound; the mixers of "Enemy at the Gates" recognize this, so that even in the stalking-and-sniping sequences, the sound is always effectively used.
The disc includes several extras (though not, surprisingly, a commentary track). There are two making-of publicity shorts, quite similar to one another; both "Through the Crosshairs" and "Inside 'Enemy at the Gates'" are unexceptional but competent. The same is true of the rather long roster of cut scenes; in every case, it's clear why these scenes (mostly very brief) were cut from the finished film -- evidently late in the post-production process, since they're color-timed and scored. The best of these is a short scene of Krushchev on the phone with the never-depicted Stalin.
Even if the story of the duel between Zaitsev and Konig is partly fiction, it's a compelling tale, and well worth telling. The scenes of Zaitsev prowling the city on sniper duty are fascinating and suspenseful, and the final showdown between him and Konig is, if not vivid, well-crafted and satisfyingly climactic. But overall, "Enemy at the Gates," while professional and watchable, feels like a lost opportunity.