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A Riveting War Within a War

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2001


    'Enemy at the Gates' Jude Law plays a Russian sniper in "Enemy at the Gates." (Paramount)
I don't want this to come out the wrong way, but Ed Harris makes an excellent Nazi.

In "Enemy at the Gates," set during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, he's the immaculately dressed Major Koenig, a German patrician who proudly wears his Iron Cross, speaks only when it's essential and smokes his gold-tipped cigarettes with the clipped savoir-faire of any great James Bond villain.

He holds his cigarette at a stiff 90 degree angle, savoring the smoke that he has just inhaled, his thoughts tenaciously focused on his mission: to kill a certain, persistent Russian sniper. Koenig is a sniper himself, the best in Germany. This is going to be quite a matchup.

This Russian sniper (Jude Law), a peasant named Vassily Zaitsev, has been hiding in the ruins of Stalingrad, plugging Germans by the dozen. His kills have become a sort of celebrated score sheet for Stalin's public relations mill; Vassily is an instant celebrity, the savior of his people, a hero for all time. Hope like that can change the outcome of a battle.

Naturally, the Germans need such a figure dead. In "Enemy," it comes down to this: a single bullet in either sniper's brain is going to settle the Battle of Stalingrad and World War II, once and for all. Does it get more riveting than this?

There are other people involved in this chess game: a Russian apparatchik named Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) and his communist boss (Bob Hoskins), who are using Vassily's success for the people's dailies; Tania (Rachel Weisz), a Jewish sniper who wants to shoot the Germans who just executed her parents, and who's falling in love with Vassily; and the teenaged Sasha (Gabriel Thomson), whose fickle impulses (he's an informant for both sides) could be Vassily's undoing.

An ambitious war epic (many scenes of massive slaughter and the destruction of Stalingrad) featuring a quintessentially American actor (Harris) as a Nazi major, a trio of People magazine cover-Brits (Jude Law! Joseph Fiennes! Rachel Weisz!) as Russian soldiers, and all of this directed by the Frenchman (Jean-Jacques Annaud), who made "The Name of the Rose," well, it gives you pause, doesn't it, monsieur, mein Freund, mate, dude or comrade?

But as long as you focus on the central sniper-versus-sniper story – and not the dreadful mishmash of jarring accents or the film's unconvincing romantic subplot or any of the personal relationships – you'll enjoy it. Sure, that's a lot of things to ignore, but there's ample enough left to enjoy.

The movie, based on the real exploits of a Russian sniper during World War II, certainly keeps your attention locked and loaded. That's because, most of the time, we are watching Vassily and Major Koenig in deep, perpetual concentration. They are after one thing: the perfect shot. And they're using the massively broken and destroyed Stalingrad as their battle ground.

A downed Luftwaffe plane, kilometers of old rusty factory pipes, broken walls, a cast-iron stove, the littered bodies of soldiers – these are things to hide behind. These are the milestones along that painful crawl to the perfect vantage point.

This movie may seem to some like little more than boys' war games. But director Annaud, who wrote this with Alain Godard, knows how to milk the suspense. It's clear that Annaud has seen and appropriated some of the gruesome battle details used by Steven Spielberg in "Saving Private Ryan." If nothing else, you really understand the impact of a bullet in this movie. And you appreciate the compelling excitement of shooting to kill, before the other guy gets you first.

"Enemy at the Gates" (R, 131 minutes) – Contains graphic war violence, nudity and sexual scenes.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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