The WWII Battle of Stalingrad was the critical political battle of Hitler's annexation of Europe. Nikita Krushchev (Bob Hoskins) was sent in to ensure a face-saving victory for Stalin when the Russians were overpowered in every way. Young propaganda journalist Danilov (Joseph Fiennes, "Shakespeare in Love") sways Krushchev from his intimidation tactics towards building morale through hope pinned on a young heroic soldier, sniper Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law, "The Talented Mr. Ripley) in writer/director Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Enemy at the Gates."Laura:
Annaud begins his based-on-fact tale of the heroic Russian sniper and the German officer sent to stop him (Ed Harris as Major Koenig) with a remembrance of Vassily as a young boy. A dappled horse is tethered in a snowy field as bait to draw wolves. The shepherd's son, being taught how to shoot by his grandfather, watches in horror as the wolf attacks the helpless horse. This metaphor for the sniper battle to follow is stunningly shot, recalling Annaud's nature flick "The Bear."
As adult Vassily travels by train towards the fighting in Stalingrad, he notices a lovely young woman (Rachel Weisz, "The Mummy"), but at their destination, he's herded off the train to boats crossing the Volga to a city under bombardment. This opening sequence recalls that of "Saving Private Ryan," as the Russians are mowed down before most can reach shore - even by their own officers if they attempt to flee the boats. Once ashore, Vassily is greeted with the following orders, repeated over and over as one man receives a gun and the next ammunition - 'The one with the rife shoots. When the one with the rifle gets killed, the one that follows picks up the rifle and shoots.'
Vassily (a holder of bullets) meets Danilov (who's retrieved a gun from a corpse) when both are playing dead amidst scores of dead Russian soldiers in a city square water fountain. They're within shooting range of a high ranking Nazi and his valet when an additional three Germans pull up. Vassily kills all five providing Danilov with a hero around whom he builds a legend. Danilov's newspaper for the Russian military reports on the extraordinary number of German officers Vassily shoots. The Germans take note of this Russian hero and we next see the elegant Major Koenig, the Germans' best sharpshooter, arriving by train smoking gold tipped cigarettes and drinking champagne.
Danilov introduces Vassily to Mrs. Filipov (Eva Mattes, "Woyzeck") who provides an underground shelter and food. Her young son Sascha (Gabriel Thomson) will become a resourceful go-between, trading information for chocolate from Major Koenig. They also meet Tania, that beauty from the train, an educated Jew who wishes to fight the Nazis. Danilov is smitten and insists her education be used at headquarters, but she wants revenge for the murder of her parents and joins the sniper group.
Annaud and cowriter Alain Godard have taken the legend of Vassily Zaitsev, his lover Tania and his German foe Koenig (whom the Russians have documented, but not the Germans) and fashioned an intimate story of a lovers triangle (Danilov's character is their concoction and the weak point of the screenplay) and two man battle amidst an epic battle. This first class production scores on almost every front, from Annaud's taut, suspenseful direction to the realistic recreation of Stalingrad under siege (production design by Wolf Kroeger, art direction by Steven Lawrence and Dominic Masters). The match between 'the nobleman from Bavaria who hunts deer and the shepherd's son who poaches wolves' is like a life and death game of chess. Annaud also grittily turns up the heat between Law and Weisz with a uniquely erotic lovemaking scene in the trenches. Unfortunately, James Horner's ("The Perfect Storm") emotionally obvious score plays down to the audience.
The stunning beautiful Jude Law looks the part of the young Russian peasant, although his characterization doesn't go too deep. Ed Harris is exemplary as the German officer with piercing blue eyes. Harris projects a wounded and world weary aristocrat. Weisz is believable as the fiercely passionate Tania. Not so successful is Fiennes whose Danilov seems a reject from a dinner theater production of "Fiddler on the Roof" while Hoskins is apparently on a mission to portray as many tyrants as possible. The film also features Ron Perlman ("The City of Lost Children") as Koulikov, a student of Koenig's on the Russian side and esteemed German actor Matthias Habich ("Beyond Silence") as General von Paulus.
Many Americans may not be familiar with the events of the Battle of Stalingrad (note that there's an even better film on this battle, told from the German perspective, "Stalingrad," available for rental). Annaud's "Enemy at the Gates" is a rousing historical drama and worthy addition to the recent revival of WWII films.
In 1942 and '43, during the bloody battle of Stalingrad, a new kind of hero arose from the ranks of the Soviet army. Vassily Zaitzev (Jude Law), a simple shepherd from the Urals, is thrust into the limelight when he guns down five Nazi officers, from a distance, with just five shots. As he continues to rack up kills against the German invaders, a master sniper is sent by Hitler to kill the young hero in "Enemy at the Gates."
Jean-Jacques Annaud directs this epic-scale story of the private war that takes place between Vassily and German sniper par excellent, Major Koenig (Ed Harris), with the murderous battle for Stalin's namesake city as its backdrop. Jude Law stars as the young Red Army soldier whose shooting skills come under the scrutiny of Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a political commissar who sees Vassily's enemy-killing potential as a morale booster for the beleaguered Russian troops.
As Vassily's reputation for killing Nazi officers rises on both sides, the Germans send their own expert marksman, Koenig, to Stalingrad to gun down the young Russian hero. This begins a battle of wits in a cat-and-mouse game as the hunters, themselves, become the hunted. As the war rages on between the two great armies, Zaitzev and Koenig each try to best the other. Danilov uses this personal fight as a propaganda tool to elevate Vassily to hero status in the eyes of the Russian people, soldiers and civilians alike.
Meanwhile, both Vassily and Danilov are attracted to a beautiful American-educated Russian woman, Tania (Rachel Weisz), and a love triangle begins. This is where "Enemy at the Gates" runs into trouble - the battle of the snipers takes a back seat to the love story and the film suffers for the change of focus.
Director Annaud and cowriter Alain Godard use the real-life story of Vassily Zaitsev as the basis of their tale. The duel of the snipers, Vassily's rise to hero of the Soviet Union, and Tania's presence during the private war are all based on fact. The scripters, in their research of facts and legends, take liberties with the true-life yarn, introducing the conflict between Vassily and Danilov in their pursuit of the beautiful Tania. This tangent takes the focus away, considerable, from the taut battle between the Zaitzev and Koenig.
Where "Enemy at the Gates" excels is in the depth and breadth of the battlefield production. The film begins with an old-fashioned map of Europe where, suddenly, the Nazi blight spreads across the face of the continent with the roving camera eye closing in on Stalingrad! With that, we're thrust into the war from the point of view of young recruit Vassily. He and his comrades must cross the Volga River through a murderous barrage of bullets and bombs to reach the front. These untrained conscripts are prodded kicked, even shot by the political commissars to get them to fight. These action sequences, especially the battle itself, are stunning in their depiction of the savagery of war.
The casting and acting, for the most part, is serviceable, but without distinction - with a couple of exceptions. Ed Harris gives an expected excellent performance as the aristocrat hunter turned sniper master sent to stalk and kill Vassily. He carries himself with the assured air of a man of means and stature, used to having the best in all things. Harris neutralizes his American accent, giving it a slight Teutonic clip in keeping with his character. The rest of the cast doesn't make such an effort so we get an odd mix of mostly British accents from the rest.
Notable among the cast is young Gabriel Thomson as little Sasha, a Russian kid who becomes a pawn in the battle of wits between Koenig and Vassily. When he gazes at Vassily with a look of admiration, he almost glows. The relationship that develops between Sasha and Koenig, as the boy plays double agent for Danilov, is palpable. It is so much so that the break between the two, when it finally comes, did not sit right with me. Jude Law, a young actor whom I've grown to like, is vacuous as Vassily. The tentativeness he first displays is never lost even as he is supposed to become a battle hardened veteran. Rachel Weisz is pretty as the love interest, but is mostly just window dressing. Fiennes is wooden and unconvincing as the power hungry political commissar who sucks up to Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins), sent by Stalin to oversee the battle.
Technically, "Enemy at the Gates" is a superb achievement. The battle sequences are wrought with shockingly realistic action as the two armies collide. The computer-generated F/X, like the squadron of Stukas dive-bombing the troop boats or Junker 88's carpet bombing the ruins of Stalingrad, are seamless. The wide panoramic of the battle sequences are richly detailed with specifics, like tanks, weapons and uniforms, given a great deal of attention.
"Enemy at the Gates" tries to be two very different films and isn't really a success at either. It tries to be a compelling war drama of a duel to the death between two sniper masters. At the same time, it poses as a romantic drama with the war as a backdrop. I didn't get enough of one - the sniper battle, of course - and thought there was way too much of the other. It's a brilliant production, though, and I give it a B.
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