Okay, let’s get this over with right now. For you haters out there, I like this movie. I can hear all the groans and I don’t care. And it’s not one of those unexplainable WTFs that you get when you read some critic inexplicably give a positive review to a terrible movie. In order to positively review a movie like “Battleship”, you must be watching it while eating a gallon of ice cream to compensate for being dumped by your girlfriend and it has to be that you are not rewatching the movie. I am quite sane, was not under mental distress, and I have seen the movie several times.
“Enemy at the Gates” grew from the tiny seed of a few pages in the eponymously entitled non-fiction book by William Craig about the Battle of Stalingrad. (A book I read in high school.) Director Jean-Jacques Annaud took that seed involving a sniper’s duel in the rubble of the City of Stalin and grew a movie out of it. The movie was to be Europe’s answer to “Saving Private Ryan”. It was, at the time, the most expensive non-American movie ever made.
The story opens with Vassili Zaitzev (Jude Law) learning how to hunt from his grandfather. Hunting wolves is a lot like sniping, so this teaching will serve him well. Years later, with war raging in Russia, Vassili is shipped with other cannon fodder to Stalingrad. The film’s equivalent to the opening of SPR has the new recruits crossing the Volga under attack by Stukas and then having to make a suicidal frontal attack on an entrenched German position. The crossing could be described as “the fog of arrival” as the Stuka attack generates chaos, confusion, and fear. The CGI is okay and the wounds are graphic. Very similar to when the ramp goes down in the Higgins boat in SPR. Upon reaching shore every other soldier is handed a rifle. “The one with the rifle shoots, the one without the rifle follows him. When the one with the rifle gets killed, the one who is following picks up the rifle and shoots.” This is probably inaccurate, but certainly gives a realistic impression of how Soviet soldiers were used by their superiors. The cinematography for the charge puts the audience in the middle. There are hand-held and slo-mo. Blood splatters on the camera lens. Very intense with non-ridiculous deaths.
Vassili meets his soon to be BFF when Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) takes refuge in the corpse-strewn fountain Vassili is playing dead in. 5 bullets + 5 targets = a hero is born. The transition from the mass charge to individual action is cool. Danilov becomes Vassili’s press agent after he convinces the newly arrived Khruschev (Bo Hopkins) that all the Soviets need is a hero. Vassili is reluctant about becoming a celebrity, but boy is he damn good at sniping (as a montage of articles about his kills shows).
A romantic subplot kicks in as the duo are introduced to the comely Tania (Rachel Weisz) who wants to kill Germans to avenge her Jewish parents. That’s one triangle. The other evolves upon the arrival of the Great Nazi Hope. Col. Konig (Ed Harris) has been sent from his sniper school to shut down this Soviet morale-booster. He is aristocratic, cocky, and very cunning – in other words, a Hollywood Nazi. The third leg of this triangle is a twelve year old Russian boy named Sasha who imagines himself a double agent. It’s an extremely small world in Stalingrad. He shines Konig’s boots and for chocolate is willing to sell out his idol Vassili. Or is he? Thus begins the cat and mouse.
Konig is arguably a better sniper than Vassili. This being a movie, Vassili has to be the underdog. He becomes the stalkee and has several well-staged close-calls. The scenes are your basic “this might have happened to some human at one time on planet Earth”, but surely not to the same person. Except in a movie. Still, the scenarios are entertaining. The death of Vassili’s comrade Kulikov (Ron Perlman) is particularly awesome. That Nazi dude is good.
Meanwhile, romance blooms in the rubble. Tania becomes a sniper and Vassili teaches her more than how to shoot a gun. We get the most erotic, nonnudity, sleeping bag tryst in war movie history. (I fast-forwarded through that scene in my Military History class). Unfortunately for the BFFs, Danilov has taken a shine to Tania (she being the only beautiful Soviet woman in Stalingrad and possibly the whole country) and is now jealous enough to wish his meal ticket dead. Women! But a woman with a gun, screw the bromance. Konig gets jilted, too – by Sasha. We are going to lose a leg of both triangles. Who wants to predict the result of the final duel? A better question would be: will Vassili and Tania live happily ever after and breed super-snipers?
Let’s address the accuracy issue first. The movie has a legion of detractors. When it was released, Red Army veterans of WWII demanded that it be banned. It was also not well-received in Germany. Historians have come down hard on the duel. Craig apparently swallowed Soviet hero-creation propaganda hook, line, and sinker. Anthony Beevors in his book Stalingrad debunked the whole Zaitsev versus Konig (sometimes identified as Thorwald). There was a Vassili Zaitsev and he did fight at Stalingrad and did score a huge number of kills. However, the duel with a top notch German sniper was exaggerated at the least by Soviet propagandists (abetted by Zaitsev). Zaitsev even provided Konig’s rifle scope for a Russian museum. By the way, the “official” version of the final confrontation was (of course) a lot more mundane than the movie version. Zaitsev and Konig/Thorwald eyed each other’s potential lairs for days before Kulikov poked up his helmet and then feigned death to get the Nazi to reveal his position for a kill shot by Vassili.
The most amazing thing about the characters is that there actually was a Tania and even a Sasha. Before I researched the movie, I would have bet anything that those two were screenwriters inventions. Tania was an American-born Russian who returned to the home land to be with her grandparents after the invasion. When they were killed she became a vengeance-minded partisan and ended up in Stalingrad. She apparently hooked up with Zaitsev although there is debate on whether the hook up got to the sleeping bag stage. Officially, it did. She was wounded during the latter stages of the battle, as was Vassili later. Both thought the other dead, so the Soviet government was not able to stage a royal wedding. Sasha was basically as depicted sans the relationship with Konig. His death was by hanging for espionage.
My loyal followers know that I put a high premium on historical accuracy, especially when the inaccuracies make a mockery of history (as in “Braveheart”, for example). “Enemy at the Gates” does little harm to history (other than the laughable poster line “A single bullet can change history”). Craig might have been suckered, but the movie is obviously not a propaganda piece. The Zaitsev seed may have been fertilized with a ton of Soviet manure, but it makes for good entertainment for war movie lovers and more importantly for civilians (especially women). Plus, like with most fact based war movies, it can lead to fascinating fact-checking.
“Enemy at the Gates” is a fine example of a modern war movie. (I haven’t come up with a name for what I am talking about yet.) It does retain some of the elements and cliches of old school movies, but adds modern pizzazz and technology. The movie is surprisingly unpredictable to go along with its predictability. The action scenes are kinetic and the suspense is palpable. The acting is good, especially Hopkins (he chews the scenery – just like Khrushchev did) and Harris. I know Caroline will complain about the accents and I’ll not defend them, but they are not a deal breaker for me. Weisz is not particularly good (and her hair does not act at all), but her character is a very rare strong female character in a war movie. Appreciate that.
The cinematography is excellent as are the sets. A lot of money went into rubble. The musical score is memorable and repeats a strong motif for impending suspense. The sound effects are also top notch. The theme of a manufactured hero is reminiscent of “Flags of Our Fathers”. The other theme of conflicting cultures is a bit simplistic with the aristocratic, stoical German versus the proletarian, emotional Russian representing their countries, but not unbelievable.
The biggest weakness is the romantic subplot, but the trio do have some chemistry and it’s not sappy. Just highly implausible. Does anyone seriously think that a producer that expends over $60 million on a film should not try to bring females into the theater? Besides, if I can stomach it … (If you liked “Braveheart” and complain about this romance, you have some ‘splainin to do.)
Is it “Saving Private Ryan”? Definitely not. It’s a game try and you can’t seriously expect Europeans to duplicate an American epic. (Sorry, I didn’t mean that.) Did it belong on the 100 Greatest list? Are you kidding me, did you see some of the movies on the list?! Will it crack my 100 Best? It’s my list, so yes.
grade = B+
Please offer comments. I would love to hear what you think.