By the time the millennium came around, the lavish World War II movie had made something of a full bloodied comeback thanks to high profile releases such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Thin and Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour – well, maybe not so much the last one… But needless to say, all of the above titles seemed to be rather American centric, so unsurprisingly some European production houses wanted to get in on the action and thus Enemy At The Gates was born.
Based on William Craig’s 1973 non-fiction book (although that’s been heavily disputed) Enemy At The Gates: The Battle For Stalingrad and the most expensive foreign-funded movie ever made at the time, there was huge promise that this latest entry into the war genre could bring something a little different than just the same old story of American G.I.s under fire.
It’s 1942 and simple, yet patriotic farm boy Vasily Zaitsev finds himself fighting in the Battle Of Stalingrad as a member of the Red Army and due to the Russians not having enough rifles, the men have to lead a suicidal charge without weapons into the guns of the German soldiers. While many of the men are chewed up by the unrelenting fusilade from both sides (cowardice is heavily frowned upon and the Russians subsquently shoot anyone not facing the right way), Vasily manages to take refuge while desperately searching for a rifle and meets a stranded Commissar Danilov who is astounded by Zaitsev’s accuracy when he finally does get hold of a firearm and manages to take out a batch of enemy soldiers without them getting off a shot.
After witnessing this bout of sharp shooting heroism, Danilov convinces the fearsome Nikita Khrushchev that instead of motivating their troops with threats, they instead print stories of valour, to inspire the Red Army to fight even harder and volunteers Vasily’s name into the mix. The next thing you know, the humble Zaitsev becomes a war time folk hero, now fighting the battle as a sniper whose kill streaks become stuff of legend to the point where German high command tasks fellow sharp shooter Major Erwin König to take out his opposite and crush the Red Army’s morale.
However, while Vasily finds himself barely escaping one encounter after another against a superior shot, tensions arise between he and Danilov when they both fall for Tania Chernova, a private in the local militia and Vasily’s so-called friend can’t prevent jealousy from pressuring the sniper to take more risks in order to win this tense battle of the snipers.
It’s somewhat odd to be reviewing this movie during the current political climate where Russia is hardly in the global good books (especially when one character make a casual, disparaging remark about the Ukrainians) – but as the movie was made in 2001, I guess it’s going to have to be a case of separating art from politics and for the most part, Enemy At The Gates is a nicely competent war flick.
The backbone of the piece is the duelling snipers, pressured into miniature games of lethal, long-range chest as they try to out manuever each other during their numerous encounters and the movie pains to at least try and make these individual battles of attrition feel somewhat different from one another with one stand off rudely interrupted by a bombing run while another sees Vasily joined by a typically brusk Ron Pearlman as a fellow sniper as they try to figure out König’s style of shooting. It helps that both our antagonist and protagonist are portrayed by actors who can convey complex emotions while lying on their belly in a pile of rubble for hours on end and Jude Law and Ed Harris do stellar work simply by squinting down a rifle scope and waiting to see who’ll break first.
However, as entertaining as the sniper bits are, the rest of the movie is clunky enough to constantly give away its position and the finished film seems to wants to be multiple types of story in one package and it doesn’t quite work.
For a start, the romance angle with Rachel Weisz’s determined soldier is ok, but when it slowly starts to veer into love triangle territory and starts to make Joseph Fiennes’ Danilov do that creepy, thousand yard stare thing he did all the way through Killing Me Softly, you can’t help feel that the filmmakers are over burdening the plot when a war of Snipes should really be enough. Elsewhere, attempts to grasp the politics of the harsh life of a soldier of the Red Army are awkwardly funneled through Bob Hoskins’ Khrushchev as he rants and bellows at everyone around him, but it just comes off as a bit weird and matters aren’t helped much by the cast refusing to pick a cohesive accent to use. Accents in war movies have always been a little tongue in cheek, but while the Russians all speak in varying forms of English (very varied thanks to Pearlman), the Germans all speak english with German accents – except Harris, who makes like a huge breakfast and go full English. It’s not a huge problem, in fact broadly speaking its technically not a problem at all, does it does make the movie feel weirdly old fashioned in a time when other war movies felt somewhat innovative.
Elsewhere, other scenes play out as somewhat uneven; the fate of a pre pubescent double agent is legitimately disturbing and yet a moment where Vasily and Tania give in to their lust and try to silently bang in a room full of snoozing troops goes on for ages and just feels weird, when I presume it was supposed to be a touching metaphor for trying to feel human under such rigid conditions.
Director Jean-Jacques Annaud had made some varied movies during his career (there’s literally a bottomless chasm between such diverse films as In The Name Of The Rose and The Bear) but with Enemy At The Games, he ironically turns in a war flick of noticably shaky aim that dilutes dramatic and violent scenes of two headshot hungry marksmen with turgid politics and unnecessary subplots. While it doesn’t miss by a mile, a mere graze of greatness isn’t exactly going to cut it either…