Enemy at the Gates
Less than the sum its parts
Reviewed By Steven Martinovich
While war movies have always fascinated movie goers, from the cartoonish propaganda movies made during World War II to the more honest Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, it is those dealing with desperate last stands that particularly enthrall audiences. Zulu (1964) featured some 130 British soldiers holding off 4 000 Zulus during the Battle of Rourke's Drift while John Wayne's overly romanticized The Alamo (1960) allowed people to imagine what it would be like to fight in a battle where death was all but certain.
Where those flawed efforts occasionally took missteps when it came to history they could at least be counted on to at least superficially explore the men who took part in those battles. One of the more touching scenes in The Alamo saw a small group of men debate the existence of God in the hours before the final battle. No matter your belief system, it's something that you can imagine doing.
Enemy at the Gates opens with a horrific sequence which shows untrained and mostly unarmed Russian soldiers thrown into battle against heavily armed German positions. While not up to the same visceral level as Saving Private Ryan's Omaha Beach landing, it nonetheless gives some insight as to the hell that Stalingrad must have been. Strafed by German aircraft as the transports crossed the Volga River, the Russians were then sent into battle with little more than their ill-fitting uniforms, all in a bid to hold Stalingrad to the last man if necessary. If they advanced, the Germans mowed them down. If they attempted to surrender or retreat, their own officers would shoot them. Indeed, during the real Battle of Stalingrad, a German armored division once advanced rapidly in order to shield surrendering Russian soldiers from their own officers.
One soldier, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), manages to impress Political Officer Second Class Commander Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) after gunning down five German soldiers in the space of seconds. Realizing the propaganda value of the young peasant, Danilov soon turns Zaitsev into an inspiration for Stalingrad's defenders. Zaitsev becomes a member of a sniper regiment and his exploits lift the spirits of the Russians. Demoralized at the number of officers that Zaitsev guns down - who really did exist though his exploits are inflated by both the Russians and this movie - the Germans send in their aristocratic elite sniper, Major Koenig (Ed Harris) to hunt him down. After this promising beginning, however, Enemy at the Gates goes off the rails, never getting the viewer inside the individual characters. Throw in a love triangle involving Zaitsev, Danilov and Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz) and the movie rapidly becomes a sprawling mess.
For a movie that depends on a man-to-man battle and the resulting tension between Zaitsev and Koenig to draw us in, Enemy at the Gates does a remarkable job in failing to get us interested in the two men and Koenig serves merely as a device set up a sniper version of a wild west movie. Chernova fairs a little better but the love triangle involving her seems grafted on and with little purpose. Neither the Russians nor the Germans receive any real favorable treatment because the issue of the two competing ideologies is never brought up. Outside of few mentions of how the Zaitsev-Koenig duel is the class battle brought to life, Enemy of the Gates treads lightly when it comes to politics. It should be noted, though, that Koenig is singled out to commit a particularly heinous crime while the Russians seem to dance at night.
There are some positive aspects to this movie. The supporting cast - which includes Bob Hoskins and the under appreciated Ron Perlman - features several notable performances. Although director Jean-Jacques Annaud sometimes seemed to not know what scale his movie operated on, it is shot exceedingly well and the movie may frustrate you with its holes but it likely won't completely bore you.
Some critics have pointed out - unfairly in my opinion - that Enemy of the Gates fails to deliver the goods on the Battle of Stalingrad itself. More respect should have been shown to history given that as many as one million Russians and 600 000 Germans died during the fighting. It is an unfair charge to make. Enemy at the Gates is not the story of Stalingrad, but rather the story of Vassili Zaitsev. It may be guilty of many things, but pretending to be grander then it is not isn't one of them.
When compared to an effort even as flawed as The Thin Red Line, which saw the characters vainly attempt to grapple with what was going around them, Enemy at the Gates comes up very much short. Enemy at the Gates is ultimately a good example of something that is not greater the sum of its parts - or equal for that matter.
Steve Martinovich is a freelance writer and the editor of Enter Stage Right.
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