ENEMY AT THE GATES(director/writer: Jean-Jacques Annaud; screenwriters: Alain Godard/inspired by the books “Enemy at the Gates” by William Craig and “Vendetta” by Derek Lambert; cinematographer: Robert Fraisse; editors: Noelle Boisson/Humphrey Dixon; cast: Joseph Fiennes (Danilov), Jude Law (Vasily Zaitsev), Rachel Weisz (Tanya), Bob Hoskins (Khrushchev), Ed Harris (Major Konig), Ron Perlman (Koulikov), Eva Mattes (Mother Filipov), Gabriel Marshall-Thomson (Sasha), Mikhail Matveyev (Vassili’s Grandfather), Matthias Habich (General von Paulus); Runtime: 133; Paramount Pictures/Mandalay Pictures; 2001)
“The trouble with the film is that it didn’t work well for long stretches.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
“Enemy at the Gates” is a big-budget WW 11 story that begins with the Nazi invasion of Stalingrad in September of 1942 and takes us to the end of that six month battle where there were supposedly around two million casualties. The outcome of that battle in favor of the Soviets changed the course of the war. The opening battle scene is chaotic and bloody that begs for comparison with the realistic way “Saving Private Ryan” opened. It then becomes a typical Hollywood unrealistic, clichéd war film as its focus is on a cat-and-mouse game between two expert snipers: the Russian, Vasily (Jude Law), who is a shepherd boy, barely literate, self-effacing, from the Ural Mountains. He learned to shoot wolves who preyed on his family farm from his grandfather; while, the distinguished Nazi, Major Konig (Ed Harris), is a well-educated, supremely confidant, middle-aged Bavarian nobleman. Their personal duel takes place in the ruined buildings and factories of Stalingrad as the Nazi becomes the hunter, always one step ahead of his opponent, and the Russian becomes the prey.
This old-fashioned type of hokey heroic war film, which since the Vietnam War has been out of fashion, should be praised for its realistic gory opening battle scene and for its Hollywoodish personal gun duel at the end, which was as thrilling as the one staged in “High Noon.” The problem with this supposedly true story about a genuine Russian hero, was that the long middle part was bogged down by an unmoving love triangle and a lot of empty political rhetoric that slowed down the action and took away from the suspense of the two snipers matching wits with each other. It also took away credibility from the overall truth of this real war story.
The film opens by showing the desperation of the Soviet soldiers who are being sent into a battle they cannot win, as they are ordered by their officers to charge the enemy or else if they retreat the Russian officers are ordered to kill them. The frightened soldiers are caught between a rock and a hard place. In this battle arena, by a fountain surrounded by dead soldiers, there remains only two Russians alive, Vasily and a political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). Vasily will prove his skill as an expert marksman by killing five Germans in succession with five bullets from a far distance. Danilov will see this as an opportunity to make Vasily into a Russian hero of that battle, as this will be an opportunity to raise Russian hopes which is at a low point. He receives permission from Nikita Khrushchev (Hoskins), the Soviet leader of Stalingrad, to do this by printing a leaflet praising the heroic shepherd boy. The two become partners linked together in the Russian war effort, with Vasily becoming part of an elite sniper team that picks off German officers and Danilov writes those stories in the official Soviet newsletter of how many Germans Vasily kills each day.
The publicity works in building Russian morale, as fan mail pours in and workers want to name their coal mine after him. The Germans respond by sending their legendary sniper sharpshooter Major Konig to Stalingrad in order to kill Vasily.
The local shoeshine boy Sasha (Gabriel Marshall-Thomson), a boy of around eight years old, is so pleased that his mother is cooking a meal for the Russian hero and to have met Vasily that he is willing to take on the dangerous assignment of spying on the German major for Danilov. He treks mysteriously across enemy lines to give info that Danilov supplies him to give to the major.
Alove triangle develops among Vasily, Danilov and a pretty university-educated militia fighter, who studied at Moscow University German literature and is eager to avenge the murder of her parents by the Nazis, Tanya (Rachel Weisz). She is a neighbor of Sasha’s, who earnestly defends her hometown civilians as a sharpshooter. What adds to the dilemma is that both Tanya and Danilov are Jewish and that Danilov has fallen in love with her but she has fallen in love with Vasily. Danilov proves how cunning he could be in trying to keep them apart. His role comes pretty close to making an anti-Semitic statement as his caricature is of a stereotyped wormy Jew, which is odd for a film where the forces of freedom are fighting the Nazi demons who are trying to wipe the Jews off the face of the world.
But it is this love triangle that saps away from what the film was about–which even more than the war story itself, is about two men trying to see who is a better shooter. This could have just as easily have been the theme for a sports film, therefore the politics feels superfluous. When director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Seven Years in Tibet/In the Name of the Rose) gets away from this main story and goes into artificial subplots the film sinks; but, when he returns to the final payoff scene of the battle between the two elite snipers with different personalities and ideologies, the film works very well as an action spectacle.
The trouble with the film is that it didn’t work well for long stretches.
The only performance I found interesting was Ed Harris’s. He had a quiet physical way of drawing out his character that shows how cold his intelligence and sense of being was, as he hides a monster behind his chiseled stoic features and icy blue eyes. Jude Law played his role like a matinee idol in the old days of Hollywood war films would, which was to look good under all the war grime and be the good-hearted hero without a flaw. His performance did not hinder the film but, on the other hand, it didn’t seem special to me. But the performance I found the most wanting was Joseph Fiennes’s, which I found belabored with muddled Marxist speeches that made no sense. In fact, his role never added up, as I have no idea what he was supposed to symbolize. If he stops believing in the Marxist cause because a girl rejects him, as is indicated in the film, then he has to be a more shallow character than the director intended him to be. His performance woes could be blamed entirely on an inadequate script.
REVIEWED ON 3/30/2001 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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