banner image

:: Enemy At The Gates

Enemy at the Gates, the new feature film by producer/ writer/ director Jean Jacques Annaud (Black and White in Colour, The Name of the Rose, Seven Years in Tibet) depicts the most influential military battle of the 20th Century, the Battle of Stalingrad during World War 2.

During the summer of 1942 Germany initiated their attack on the Soviet Union, Australia, Britain and Americas’ ally during World War 2. The Germans managed to conquer 1000 miles of the Soviet Union, reaching Stalingrad, which was a major Russian industrial centre situated on the Volga River. Stalingrad was not only strategically important for the Germans continuing campaign, enabling them to stop supplies and other materials travelling down the Volga River to Southern Russia and providing a base for the invasion of the Caucuses oil fields, but was also the city named after the Russian leader Stalin. It was therefore an enormous propaganda target. Stalin’s response to this threat was to send Nikita Kruschev, who had risen to the top of the Soviet government despite his meagre beginnings, by his outstanding public speaking abilities.

It is with this background, that the story of Enemy At The Gates is set. Amongst the chaos and devastation that marked the Battle of Stalingrad, stories of individual heroes have emerged. It is one of these stories that co- writers Jean Jacques Annaud and long time collaborator Alain Godard (Quest for Fire, The Name of the Rose, Wings of Courage) based the film on. It’s the story of a Russian shepherd Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law: The Talented Mr Ripley, Existenz, AI), who rises to fame when political activist Danilov (Joseph Fiennes: Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth, Stealing Beauty) discovers Vassili’s talents as a sharp shooter and turns him into a national hero, giving hope to the war weary Russian population. Nikita Kruschev (Bob Hoskins: Nixon, Hook, Mermaids), looking for a new plan of attack after scare tactics and scape goating have failed to get the Russian population motivated, decides to try Danilov’s idea of giving the people hope. The Russian propaganda machine glorifies each of Vassili’s kills as he is turned into a national hero.

Unfortunately for Vassili, he is not as convinced as the rest of the population about his talents. To make matters worse, the Germans have discovered this new source of courage of the Russian people and send a sharp shooter of their own, Major Konig (Ed Harris: The Truman Show, Apollo 13, The Rock) to get rid of him for good. The duel between these sharp shooters becomes a metaphor for the rest of the Battle of Stalingrad and the very outcome of World War 2 seems to depend on who is declared the winner. Even with the help of Koulikov (Ron Perlman: The Name of the Rose, City of Lost Children, Alien: Resurrection), a veteran sharp shooter who has studied Major Konig’s moves, Vassili questions whether he has the ability to beat him, wishing that he could just return to being what he actually is, a soldier among many. It is not only Vassili who begins to question his own ability. Just as Danilov has created the legend of Vassili, so he begins to despise it when they fall in love with the same woman, Tania (Rachel Weisz: The Mummy, Stealing Beauty, and Sunshine).

The filmmakers have set out to achieve an extraordinary task, to capture the story of an individual and those people around him amidst the backdrop of the most important political battle of World War 2. There are some beautifully understated moments in the film, which leave a lasting impression on the viewer. The opening scene depicts thousands of young and inexperienced men, getting off a train as the devastation of Stalingrad appeared before them. Bombs and guns going off all around them as they were pushed ever forward, sometimes even without a weapon, to their deaths, is reminiscent of the shock and horror felt in the opening of Saving Private Ryan. The ambiguities of the class struggle in both Germany and Russia are touched upon and the crumbling ruins of a city under siege and on fire shown as almost beautiful is contrasted with the way of life hidden underneath it. Men and women sleeping in damp crowded conditions not knowing whether they will be there the next day.

Despite the fascinating content, the ambitious nature of the film and some fine performances from a young, up and coming cast, the plot of Enemy At The Gates unfolds as just another love story. Despite the emphasis on Vassili’s hero status and the importance of this and the duel with the Major on a bigger scale, it is never that apparent to the viewer. This substantially diminishes the impact the duel scenes were meant to have. In addition, some of the characters, their motivations and their relationship with Vassili, in particular, Danilov and Koulikov are not properly developed and leave the story feeling hollow. This is emphasised in the resolution that is a bit of an anti climax. There is also the choice by the director to allow the actors to play their characters in their own accents, whether that be British or American, in order to “avoid weighing his cast down with cliched film accents… which would allow the actors to communicate with the audience more naturally and directly.” This, however, has been at the price of realism, as it renders the performances significantly less believable from the very beginning.

Despite these criticisms, Enemy At The Gates is worth a look for the insight into the devastation of life in the time of war and the performance of Jude Law who is Hollywood’s next big thing.