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Film Review - Enemy at the Gates (2001)

In a series of illustrated articles, the author gives personal easy-to-read reviews of some of the most watchable films in Hollywood history

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INTRODUCTION

'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.

PLOT SPOILER

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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All of my film reviews can be accessed at the following page

  • 100 of the Greatest Movies in History - A Greensleeves Page
    What makes a great film? Everyone will have their own views, but perhaps the only defining quality is quality itself. This, however, is my list of 100 of the greatest films ever made. The list also includes links to all my film reviews.
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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.

The sniper, Vassili Zaitsev, at work

The sniper, Vassili Zaitsev, at work

MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS

ACTORCHARACTER

Jude Law

Vassili Zaitsev

Ed Harris

Major Erwin Koenig

Joseph Fiennes

Commisar Danilov

Rachel Weisz

Tania Chernova

Bob Hoskins

Nikita Khrushchev

Ron Perlman

Comrade Koulikov

Gabriel Thomson

Sacha Filipov

Eva Mattes

Mother Filipov

Sophie Rois

Ludmilla

FACTS OF THE FILM

DIRECTOR : Jean-Jacques Annaud

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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


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The adversaries: Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) .....

The adversaries: Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) .....

..... and Major Erwin Koenig (Ed Harris)

..... and Major Erwin Koenig (Ed Harris)

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.

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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.

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NEGATIVES ?

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.

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TRIVIA

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.

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Vassili Zaitsev - waiting, watching, alert

Vassili Zaitsev - waiting, watching, alert

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