Enemy at the Gates
2001, R, 129 min. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Starring Joseph Fiennes, Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Ron Perlman, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, Gabriel Marshall-Thomson, Eva Mattes, Matthias Habich.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 16, 2001
In the opening of Enemy at the Gates, as the boats land on the shores of the Volga River and the soldiers disembark in full assault mode, it's impossible not to think of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and raise the expectation that we're in for the first great war movie of the new millennium. Well, Enemy at the Gates does have a great opening sequence -- taut, visually informative, and character defining -- but that's where all comparisons with Ryan end. Enemy at the Gates puts a human face on the epic battle for Stalingrad (since renamed Volgograd) during the winter of 1942-43. The gruesome battle for mastery of the city was a turning point of the war, but its arduous and costly campaign was one of the most brutal battles of modern times. During that bitter Russian winter, more than a million Soviet soldiers died defending the Allied city from Hitler's Axis troops (who also lost around 800,000 men), and even Stalingrad civilians were shot on sight by their own security forces if they attempted to flee the city. Against this background, Enemy at the Gates tells a story based on real-life characters who fought in the war. Jude Law plays Vassili Zaitsev, an uncannily expert marksman who becomes a legendary war hero whose extraordinary feats help raise the spirits of the Soviet people. The movie creates the character of Danilov (Fiennes), a political officer and propagandist who discovers Zaitsev's special talents and mounts the campaign that turns Zaitsev into a national hero. The heart of the film is devoted to the battle between Zaitsev and the Nazi sharpshooter Major Konig (Harris), who has been sent to Stalingrad to eliminate Zaitsev. A cat-and-mouse battle of skill and wits in a bombed-out factory shell forms the centerpiece of Enemy at the Gates. It's a fascinating struggle and it's too bad that the movie chooses not to focus exclusively on this mano-a-mano psychological duel. Not only is it a battle of abilities, but it is also a battle of class difference as this shepherd from the Urals fights the refined aristocrat, and a study in the machinery of propaganda as Danilov churns out the stories that turn Zaitsev into a folk hero. But the movie derails badly with its introduction of love interest Tania (Weisz), who is loved by both Danilov and Zaitsev. It is completely extraneous to the war story and becomes laugh-out-loud ridiculous when finally consummated in a steamy session in a crowded bunker. Lest you think the love story isn't extraneous, why does the movie tack on an epilogue that, rather than providing the results of the battle, instead gives us the final wrap on the love affair? Further technical complications arise from the filmmaker having allowed all the actors to speak in their natural accents so that not only are all these German and Russian soldiers speaking English but they are speaking in a range of American and British accents. Which, of course, gets us to Bob Hoskins, who is a dynamo, if not wholly believable, in the role of Khrushchev. Ed Harris has little dialogue (a specialty of director Annaud, whose titles include such language-free features as Quest for Fire and The Bear) and seems to have been cast solely for his piercing eyes. Enemy at the Gates is a disappointment primarily because it seems so rich with possibilities. War may indeed be hell but it seems that it's love that makes the world go round.