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'Enemy at the Gates': Mighty Scope, Bad Aim

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2001


    'Enemy at the Gates' Jude Law plays a Russian sniper in "Enemy at the Gates." (Paramount)
"Enemy at the Gates" is far more remarkable for what it shows than what it is.

What it shows is a convincing re-creation of one of the great convulsions of the last century, the battle for Stalingrad. There, two ignorant armies clashed by morning, noon and night through the autumn and winter of 1942-43 until, exhausted and surrounded, the Germans surrendered and, quite probably, the world was saved.

What it is, at least in the foreground, is a routine if somewhat ridiculous old-style war drama in which two snipers, one a blue-eyed German, the other a Russian peasant, hunt each other through the ruined corridors of the city. Allegedly based on a real event, it still plays like a '40s Warner Bros. melodrama: All the old favorites are pulled out, to undistinguished, even kitschy, effect. The only thing missing is S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall as "Marshal Zhukov."

The director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, is one of the certified crazy men of world cinema. He likes to make movies no one else could even imagine. He re-created the culture of paleolithic man in "Quest for Fire" and the world according to ursine carnivora in "The Bear." He memorialized the violation of a child in the deeply icky "The Lover," and now he gives us Stalingrad. Still, if the movie is mediocre, the history it represents is not. For that correction to our collective Western amnesia, then, Annaud deserves some special award.

Using the latest in movie digitizing techniques, he's able to give us what the now-grainy archival footage can only suggest. There aren't enough flyable Stukas and He 111s left to make a movie, but the computers can cook up fleets of the gull-winged dive bombers strafing the Volga to destroy the Red reinforcement barges, or the streamlined light bombers scudding low over the city, their bombs fluttering down randomly. The computer can also give us staggering vistas of destruction, crawling with ant-sized men, armored vehicles, shattered heroic statues of Joe "The Boss" Stalin, and grand canyons of ravaged factories and housing districts.

A pleasant surprise is that, unlike the Warners of the '40s, Annaud isn't particularly sentimental about the Soviets. Without a great deal of fuss he evokes a totalitarian state's ethos of war, in which all soldiers are merely fodder for the survival of the state and the boss. If you run, you'll be shot by NKVD troops; if you fail to take a German machine-gun position, those same NKVD troops will machine-gun you when you try to return. If there aren't enough rifles to go around, you go into battle unarmed and try to pick one up when someone gets killed. As Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins, behind the spirit-gum warts and all) proclaims: Victory or death.

Into this nightmare comes the delicate and beautiful Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), a humble shepherd from the Urals with a nice British public-school accent. Thrust into the anonymous front lines, he survives both the Germans and the NKVD (as the KGB was then called) by playing dead. Later, a political commissar – that is, a combination morale officer, secret policeman and public-relations guy – comes along, gets in trouble, and is saved by the rifle skills Zaitsev picked up hunting wolves in the mountains. This fellow, one Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), sees the morale potential for an army in desperate need of heroes. He begins an aggressive publicity campaign to depict the baffled peasant youth as a master sniper who takes out hundreds of Nazis.

Meanwhile, both men fall in love with the same girl, inevitably named Tania. She is played by Rachel Weisz of "The Mummy" and, in one of the film's more bizarre twists, for a time "Enemy at the Gates" becomes a silly little love triangle as sniper and commissar compete for the hand of the fair Tania, while outside the incoming 88s whisper a romantic accompaniment. It's in these same bunker sequences that Annaud manages to portray the defense of Stalingrad as the last of the really great toga parties from "Animal House." I mean, these Russki kids really rocked!

Then the Germans bring in their master shooter, one Maj. Konig, embodied by Ed Harris, who acts mostly with his blue eyes and his hard cheekbones because his New Jersey accent would otherwise spoil the illusion. Both sides understand that there's the issue of morale involved, and in a slaughterhouse that claims at least 2 million, the lives of these two men, the Hector and the Achilles of World War II, will be paramount.

Did it ever happen? Sure enough, Zaitsev is a historical figure and the sniper vs. sniper duel has been reported in many postwar accounts. But it might be completely fake. To its credit, the movie doesn't hide behind a "based on a true story" mask, and the press notes acknowledge that the more Annaud and his team researched the purported events, the less convinced they became. A somewhat controversial anti-Soviet historian, Antony Beevor, author of the recent "Stalingrad," maintains that the whole duel was dreamed up by Russian propagandists and that no mention of the encounters can be found in the otherwise detailed Soviet war diaries.

Whatever the historical merits, one can certainly see the dramatic potential – two men skittering like rats through the ruins, trying to get vantage and angle on each other for the killing shot, each aware that he carries the hopes of his nation in his pack along with dry cheese and ammo. But you'll forgive me if I maintain a sniper vs. sniper duel has been better handled elsewhere in other media.

Annaud detracts from the clarity of the confrontation with too much melodrama. Even beyond the idiotic love triangle, there's a thoroughly unbelievable subplot in which a young boy (named, of course, Sacha, played by the adorable Gabriel Marshall-Thomson) functions as a double agent, seemingly serving the Germans by day and the Russians by night, moving effortlessly through the worst urban battle in history to go from day job to night job. How would he even know enough German to communicate, and why would the Russians trust him and let him run "home" every night, as if it's the suburbs?

Possibly one can think too hard about such matters and ought instead simply grant the movie the largeness of its poetic license. The action scenes are well enough handled, even if Annaud hasn't thought much about the technical difficulties of making a long-range shot; he seems to think that all you need to do is point the rifle and something will fall, and he doesn't appreciate that stalking and patience are the true hallmarks of the sniper, as much as shooting.

But he gets one thing right, and it is the film's proudest and only accomplishment: Stalingrad was a hell of a fight.

"Enemy at the Gates"(131 minutes) is rated R for battle violence and sexual innuendo.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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