Film Review - Enemy at the Gates (2001)
'Enemy at the Gates' is a movie about the personal struggle for life and death between two men who are caught up on opposite sides of one of the great battles of World War Two. The film stars several of the biggest names in Hollywood, Jude Law, Ed Harris and Joseph Fiennes, with Rachel Weisz as the love interest of the heroic central character. So far so conventional.
But 'Enemy at the Gates' is perhaps an unusual production as English language war movies go. For a start there isn’t an American soldier or even a Brit in sight, and the fighting is not on the beaches of Normandy or the deserts of North Africa or the islands of the Pacific. Instead we are in the broken down, wrecked and ravaged streets of a Russian city. The battle in question is Stalingrad where the German army unleashed a devastating bombardment during the autumn of 1942. The location is about as depressingly grey and tortured as any major film location has ever been.
The two protagonists who spend almost the entire film trying to outwit each other, are a sniper in the defending Red Army of Communist Russia, and a Major in the invading army of Fascist Germany. Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev was a real figure who is believed to have claimed about 250 German victims. German Major Koenig was based on a real life marksman sent to Stalingrad to quell the snipers.
On this page under 'NEGATIVES ?' there is a brief but major plot spoiler which reveals what becomes of several of the central characters at the end of the film, and in real life.
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WHAT'S THE STORY ?
The action starts on 20th September 1942 as Vassili Zaitsev arrives in Stalingrad with thousands of other Russian troops to defend the city against the might of the German onslaught. But to talk about defending the city is almost a nonsense, because Stalingrad has already been reduced to rubble. Vassili is in danger before ever he has the chance to get his feet on Stalingrad’s soil - the boat transporting him down river to the city comes under aerial attack, and the slaughter commences. Soon after this, the Russians assemble their new recruits and send them into an old-fashioned army charge at the Germans, reminiscent of the Charge of the Light Brigade and equally ineffective. They are butchered, and when they turn to run, they are mowed down as cowards by their own officers.
Zaitsev at this stage is just one among the thousands in this Hell of a battle. He's not even offered the chance to carry a gun, because there just aren't enough to go round. However, unbeknownst to his officers, Zaitsev has a special talent; he is an expert marksman. It isn't long before he gets the opportunity to demonstrate his prowess when, in a chance encounter with another Russian soldier, he comes across five Germans taking a bit of leisure time out from the business of winning the war. One is even having an improvised shower amidst the rubble. Coolly, clinically, Zaitsev takes a gun from his comrade, and despatches the Germans one by one. It transpires that the Russian comrade who has witnessed this supreme act of markmanship is ‘Political Officer‘ Danilov, charged with promoting the war effort to an almost defeated nation. Danilov believes that the way to lift spirits is to give the people stories of victories and heroes. And in his eyes, Vassili Zaitsev will be the perfect hero.
From that moment on and with the blessing of his boss (a young Nikita Khrushchev) Danilov turns the young soldier into a sniper, and publicises his exploits in a series of newsletters, setting him up as an example to others. Zaitsev is befriended and fed by a local woman Mrs Filipov, her young son, Sacha, and a local girl and fellow soldier, Tania Chernova, with whom he soon falls in love. All the time, Zaitsev continues his new work, sniping the German invaders, and each and every kill is reported and manipulated by Danilov to put fear into the hearts of the enemy, now terrified to venture out into the open for fear of becoming the next victim of this deadly assassin. Fan mail floods in, and Zaitsev's reputation grows to legendary status.
Cue the arrival in the city of German Major Erwin Koenig. Major Koenig is a master crackshot who has been brought to the city for just one purpose - to hunt down the snipers, and rid the city of the threat which is tormenting the German army and which has halted their progress. Above all, his mission is to kill the sniper whose exploits are boosting Russian morale with every kill - Vassili Zaitsev. And it soon emerges, or at least Zaitsev himself becomes convinced - that this German major is even better at the job than he is. As the two men begin to stalk each other Vassili is outwitted more than once and only escapes death at the Major’s hands by the skin of his teeth and at the expense of the lives of more than one of his compatriots.
Desperate measures are called for to save Zaitsev - not so much the man, but the legend - and Danilov is prepared to take desperate measures. He enlists the aid of little Sacha to befriend the Major and act as a double agent, reporting back on the tactics and manoeuvres of the German sharpshooter to give Zaitsev an edge. It’s a dangerous game, and a game which seems destined to end in tragedy.
Zaitsev and the Major share a common outlook and an uncommon skill, but the brutality of war precludes any feelings of respect and admiration. The duel continues as events move towards a final confrontation.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
Major Erwin Koenig
FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : Jean-Jacques Annaud
WRITERS / SCREENPLAY :
- Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard
YEAR OF RELEASE : 2001
RUNNING TIME : 131 minutes
GENRE : War
GUIDENCE : Many shootings, some of which are graphic / very brief nudity
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS : None
CAST AND CHARACTERS
Though some characters in this movie are more convincing than others, I believe all the leads give accomplished performances in portraying them. Jude Law and Rachel Weisz are credible as Vassili and Tania, and Ed Harris is watchable in every scene in which he appears as Major Koenig. Sadly he is not given enough scope here to explore the beliefs and moral codes which cause Koenig to behave in the way he does (seemingly apolitical and civilised one moment, utterly brutal the next). Joseph Fiennes playing of Commisar Danilov is understated; again there is little room for character development, but that is not the fault of the actor. This movie is not about characters; it is about the devastation of war and the peculiar life of a sniper.
SPECIAL FEATURE : THE BATTLE OF STALINGRAD
Following the German declaration of war on the Soviet Union in 1941, Hitler moved rapidly to establish an Eastern Front to his campaign to dominate the continent of Europe. His armies invaded the ill-prepared and poorly equipped Russian nation, and advancement was rapid. The aim was to wipe out Soviet resistance before it could be effectively organised and armed, and the aim was carried out with a brutality unparalleled in the Western theatre of war. In August 1942, the city of Stalingrad came under massive bombardment by the Luftwaffe which destroyed much of the city, but did not remove the Red Army from its defensive positions. When the German army moved into the streets of Stalingrad, fierce fighting ensued, and although the invading force would control much of the city for many months, they failed to entirely clear Stalingrad of Russian resistance. The bitter winter of 1942/3 and the inability to re-equip and feed the German forces so far from home, gradually also took their toll. Soviet offensives to retake the city were successful early in 1943 when the bulk of the occupying German army surrendered.
Stalingrad, along with such battles as Midway, El-Alemein, and the Normandy landings, is seen as one of the decisive events of World War Two. Before Stalingrad, Hitler had hopes of marching on Moscow and conquering Russia. After Stalingrad, the Germans were on the retreat, and the Red Army was marching towards Berlin. But the battle was won at a high cost - perhaps as many as two million died in fighting or in the aftermath - soldiers, civilians, and prisoners of war who died of disease or malnutrition.
I find Ed Harris’s character, well played though it is, rather lacking in credibility. For much of the film the Major is portrayed as a dedicated, thoughtful professional, not a political fanatic, and perhaps not the sort of man who would just shrink away from a moral dilemma and kowtow to his Nazi overlords. He is simply doing what he's good at for the sake of his duty as a soldier. But then he commits an act of unspeakable evil. It may be a tactically astute thing to do in terms of getting Zaitsev out into the open, but I cannot quite square it with the character he’s exhibited in the movie up until that point.
The film has come in for much criticism on a whole range of points. Some feel that the acting roles are miscast (I don't) and the love interest between Zaitsev and Tania Chernova is unnecessary and unlikely. Again, I disagree. The presence of Tania acknowledges the part women played in the Soviet war effort, and I suspect that in such desperate circumstances as are depicted here, human beings might very well grasp at any chance of an affectionate relationship - young men and women are young men and women even in time of brutal war. When the couple make love, it is not sexually appealing - it is embarressingly uncomfortable in a crowded room - there is no privacy. This lack of gentle romance makes it seem believeable to me.
The most venomous criticisms however are generally reserved for the fact that one of the bloodiest battles of the war is reduced to a two-man feud, but I feel the story is not the story of Stalingrad; it is the story of Zaitsev and the insular war of a sniper.
(Plot Spoiler) Truth and fiction are mingled in this film. Most of the characters are based upon real people. Zeitsev really was a folk-hero sniper, and there is believed to have been a German ace involved in a duel with him, and who he killed, though the name and circumstances may have been different. The relationship with Tania sadly did not work out - both believed the other had been killed, and did not learn of each other's whereabouts until much later, when Zeitsev was married.
I'm not keen on real events being changed radically for entertainment purposes - I feel a great script writer and director should be able to make the truth sufficiently entertaining. But the essence of the film has a convincing feel to it. And Nikita Khrushchev - later Soviet General Secretary - really was involved in promoting the name of Vassili Zaitsev as depicted in the movie.
The film was not well received by many in Germany and Russia. In Germany some saw the movie as glorifying a personal battle in a tragic period of the war, and some in Russia were concerned at the negative portrayal of Red Army officers and soldiers, and wanted the film banned in the country. However, fortunately for freedom of expression in the new Russia, the request was denied.
Much of the location shooting, rather ironically was done in Berlin, and elsewhere in Germany.
The skills of crackshot snipers are always something which can be admired in the movies, albeit the purpose to which their talents are put may be less so. The scene in which Zeitsev’s extraordinary ability is first put to the test is really quite clever. Five German soldiers are taking a break amidst the rubble, whilst the senior officer has an impromptu shower. Shooting any of them will surely break Zeitsev’s cover and reveal his location, so he has to take them one by one in carefully selected order as the sound of nearby explosions drowns the sound of his rifle. Almost before they know what’s happening, the Germans have been shot. Danilov, an eye-witness, takes note, as the incident will change both their lives and many others.
The key quotes in this movie are the quotes which convey the feelings of desperation in the Soviet camp, and the need for a boost of morale which thrusts Vassili into the foreground.
One time, Nikita Khrushchev displays a ruthless 'never surrender' mentality:
'You won't give up the river bank. I don't care if you lost half your men. Lose the other half. Lose yourself!'
But then, in a meeting with his political officers, Khrushchev asks for their opinions; how to turn the tide of defeatism? How to make the men want to fight? Some tow the party line with suggestions to make an example of any cowards or deserters with ruthless punishments. But Commisar Danilov - after his encounter with Zaitsev - has a diffferent solution:
'There's another way. The way of courage. The way of love of the Motherland. We must publish the army newspaper again. We must tell magnificent stories, stories that extol sacrifice, bravery ... We must give them hope, pride, a desire to fight. Yes, we need to make examples. But examples to follow. What we need ... are heroes.
Khrushchev: 'Do you know any heroes around here?'
Danilov: 'Yes, comrade. I know one.'
The Germans have their own similar problem once the snipers like Zaitsev begin their work, and Major Koenig is seen as the answer to the problem as commanding General Paulus explains:
'My army is not designed for this kind of fighting. Yesterday, yet again I had to promote 25 sergeants to replace the officers shot down... Those snipers are demoralizing my people.'
The speeches over, the missions of Zaitsev and Koenig made clear, it's time for the two men to seek each other out.
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT ?
If ‘Saving Private Ryan’ set new benchmarks in the depiction of the chaotic and bloody reality of foot soldier battle, then ‘Enemy at the Gates’ sets a new standard in the depiction of the squalor, the grime, and the utter desolation of a war ravaged city. There’s literally nothing of a material nature worth fighting for in bombed out Stalingrad; just some strange misplaced sense of pride on the part of the Russians, and a ruthless desire on the part of the Nazis to wipe from the Earth the city which bears the name of the Russian supremo. Nothing is nice; black crows peck at the bodies of lifeless soldiers left to rot in the streets. Even the act of love making is done in the company of a crowded room of sleeping soldiers, with no screen to offer privacy and no gentleness in the act. Everything is so realistic.
The story of this film means that there is a difficult line to tread. Zaitsev is, after all, pursuing what might be considered one of the less honourable professions in the military - a concealed, deadly killer shooting down soldiers without giving them the benefit of a fair fight. It is brutal. And he is also fighting in the colours of Stalin, a communist tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions of Russians during his time in power. So the side of righteousness in this conflict is only made clear by the comparison with the aggressors, fighting for the even more evil Nazi regime, who are invading the Russian homeland. The film does not shy away from the brutalities of Zaitsev’s own side in this conflict - Russian soldiers are ordered to gun down fleeing Russian troops, and a Russian officer is obliged to commit suicide with his own gun for perceived failures - but these are the actions of the political leaders.
Vassili Zaitsev himself is portrayed not as a political animal, but as a foot soldier, merely doing his duty in protecting his homeland, loyal, brave, and with a special talent. The film handles this well, and enables us to care about this man and the girl he grows to love, Tania Chernova.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Despite the depressing environs of the conflict based on the real life battle of Stalingrad, this film focuses on the more human story of Vassili Zeitsev, an ordinary person with an extraordinary ability, struggling to please his masters and live up to the burden of responsibility put on his young shoulders, whilst trying to develop a relationship with a girl in almost impossible circumstances. Above all, there is the day to day struggle just to stay alive as a duel of wits begins with Major Koenig. It's a grim, but fascinating struggle to watch.
IF YOU LIKE THIS FILM ...
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