Enemy at the Gates

a novel on the same subject matter:

War of the Rats

Enemy at the Gates takes the legend of a venerated Soviet war hero, Vassili Zaitsev, and fictionalizes it into a Hollywood-style romantic drama placed against the background of the siege of Stalingrad in 1942-3. Zaitsev (Jude Law) was a peasant, trained by his grandfather to be a crack marksman and skilled hunter. As the horrific slaughter of the battles at Stalingrad decimated the poorly trained and underequipped Soviet army, Zaitzev’s skills were put to use as a sniper, picking off Nazi soldiers one-by-one.

In the film, Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a PR flack for the Soviets, inflates modest Zaitsev’s successes into a major ongoing news story, creating a hero in order to resuscitate the ebbing morale of the Soviet troops.Zaitsev’s accomplishments, both as soldier and coverboy, lead the Nazis to call in a counter-sniper, aristocratic Major Konig (Ed Harris), an icily efficient assassin. A duel of wits and skills (and class, too, it is broadly suggested) ensues, involving spying and counterspying by a young boy, Sasha (Gabriel Thomson). Sasha’s positioning between the two marksmen stretches credulity and his fate is predictable long before the story gets to it, but those are flaws that the target audience for a large-scale Speilbergian war story will likely forgive.

"Spielbergian" is no coincidence here: Enemy at the Gates practically screams for comparison to Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s 1998 opus that won him an Academy award. Ryan also traces an intimate story against the background of a major battle of World War II. Whatever else viewers thought of the film, the technical brilliance and the gritty realism of the opening half hour rendering of the D-Day invasion was memorable movie-making, and the movie gained real power in its character-based central story.

Held against that standard, Enemy doesn’t make the cut. It also opens with a major attack by barely-arrived Soviet troops, crossing the Volga River in boats to get to Stalingrad as they are bombarded by artillery and strafed from the air by Nazi planes. It’s a big, sweeping epic-style sequence with plenty of blood and gore, but it doesn’t carry the wrenching emotional whack that Ryan‘s invasion did. Where Ryan succeeded in making you feel like you were a terrified soldier in the midst of havoc, Enemy never gets to that visceral place–you’re outside looking in, watching a spectacle of someone else’s horror.

As for the more personal story, Spielberg managed to create characters you could care about and their predicaments on the battlefield were interesting explorations of moral issues in the midst of the amoral insanity of war. Enemy, in contrast, focuses on the dueling snipers–plot-based, rather than character-based. The sniping scenes are well-realized, generating tension and suspense, but it’s limited by the flat conceptions of the characters. Cliched wartime romance is thrown into the hopper, but you won’t likely care who gets the girl, if that was ever really a question in the first place; the triangle here has only two strong sides.

Bob Hoskins provides comic relief in the form of an over-the-top caricature of Nikita Kruschev as a ranking Soviet officer. What could anyone do with lines like: "Don’t give up the riverbank! I don’t care if you’ve lost half your soldiers, send in the other half!" It’s as if director Jean-Jacques Annaud threw up his hands at the fundamental thinness of his own script (co-written with Alain Godard)and conceded he was creating an epic comic book.

Jude Law is charming as Vassili, but doesn’t succeed in distinguishing the role from the charm he delivered in The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s hard to reconcile the nice guy he plays here with the cold-blooded sniper-killer, even in the war setting; it’s one thing to shoot wolves, another to gun down a guy taking a shower. Law is a charismatic screen presence, but no actor could have overcome the failure of the script to provide a believable character to play. Fiennes, too, is stuck with an inadequately developed role. Love interest Rachel Weisz fails to engage; even the scene where she relates the fate of her parents at the hands of the ever-inventive Nazis, it’s the graphic image that captures, not any genuinely felt emotion.

For the broad commercial audience–surely the only audience for which this film could have been intended–Enemy at the Gates provides spectacle, a bit of suspense, and young, attractive stars. That might prove to be enough for commercial success. Producers best beware, though, if that audience ever starts to think about what is being dished up to them on the screen.

Arthur Lazere

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.