August 8, 2013

Movie Review: Enemy At The Gates (2001)

All these men here know they're going to die. So, each night when they make it back, it's a bonus. So, every cup of tea, every cigarette is like a little celebration. You just have to accept that. - Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law)

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

Writers: Jean-Jacques Annaud and Alain Godard

Producer: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard, Roland Pellegrino, Jörg Reichl, John D. Schofield, Alisa Tager

Studio: Paramount (US)

Major Stars: Jude Law, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, Rachel Weisz, Ron Perlman, Jospeh Fiennes

Enemy At The Gates is a film that looks good and has some really fantastic moments. But its average script and complete disregard for reality drag it down well below where it should rank.

The story is a simple one. During the brutal Battle of Stalingrad during World War Two, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) is conscripted into the Red Army and sent to fight in the battle. He survives his initial taste of war and proves himself handy with a rifle. So handy, in fact, that he gets promoted to the sniper division and makes a name for himself killing German officers. They respond by sending Major Erwin König (Ed Harris), an accomplished sniper himself, to take Zaitsev out. And that is the basic spine of the story.

Let’s get the accolades out of the way first. The cinematography of the film is really something to appreciate. Whether it is the hellish crossing of the Volga River or the barren landscape where the two snipers stalk each other, the look of the movie is great. Kudos to Robert Fraisse on a job well done. He has had an interesting career. He started shooting soft-core (Story of O, Lady Chatterley's Lover) but also lensed Ronin and Hotel Rwanda. He even won an Oscar in 1992 for The Lover. Go figure

Law and Harris play their roles really well. Law portrays Zaitsev as a simple peasant who doesn’t want to be where he is but recognizes that he is good at what he does and that it serves a larger purpose. Harris is excellent as König, nailing that icy arrogance the Prussian officers in the German military always seemed to possess. He is willing to hang children to draw out Zaitsev and that didn’t seem to be a stretch for the character.

And the opening sequence is just jaw-dropping. The bombing of Stalingrad and the soldiers crossing the Volga to a burning Stalingrad, while being strafed and bombed by Stuka dive-bombers, is amazing to behold. There was a reason that at the Soviets’ low point in Stalingrad, the average life expectancy of a new private was 24 hours

With all that said, there are some problems. First is the script. It’s not bad, but there is nothing memorable about it either. It kind of just sits there and gives the characters something to say as we kill time between the sniper duels. Can anyone really remember a memorable line from the movie? Or a specific block of dialogue? After watching it again, I still think it is an adequate script. It doesn’t kill the film but it doesn’t elevate it either.

But the larger problem is its disregard for what happened at Stalingrad. Now, I am not saying that it has to be historically accurate down to the last brick. But the movie should respect what happened and not ignore it. The film Stalingrad (which I'll review next) isn’t based on a real German unit, but it respects what happened there.

For example,Enemy At The Gates has the NKVD shooting down retreating Soviet soldiers when their initial attack against the Germans falters. Now, this happened earlier in the war. But by the time of Stalingrad, Order No. 227 had been issued for the Army to form their own “blocking” units that would gun down retreating soldiers.

Or the fact that Khrushchev (played wonderfully by Bob Hoskins) never set foot in Stalingrad when the battle was going on. Yet he is extensively shown as being involved in the battle.

Or the wide-open spaces that we see all the time in Stalingrad between the two armies. In reality they were sometimes so close they could hear each other breathe. The Russians intentionally chose to get their lines as close as possible to the German lines so the Germans couldn’t use their superior tactics.

Or the fact that every Russian sounds like a Brit. Is it so much to ask people to take on a Russian accent? Or is everyone going the “Sean Connery as Captain Ramius” route these days?

But what really didn’t work for me was the “one man gets a rifle, one man gets a clip” sequence early in the film. It is true that early in the war in 1941, the Russians were caught so flat-footed that soldiers were sharing rifles, the second man picking it up when the first man was killed. But by 1942 the Russians had already launched an offensive and were building up their army. There is no way any of that would be possible if they were still having issues making rifles. I have never found anything to confirm that conceit of the film and it rankles me because it is a key part of the opening sequence of the movie. It was a desperate battle, but that also could’ve been shown by letting us see civilians build barricades, or watching tanks literally roll off an assembly line and then get driven into battle by factory workers (both of which did happen).

I understand that it is a movie and that liberties will be taken with facts. But when it comes to stuff like this, you can’t just ignore what happened. The Khrushchev thing you can call nitpicking on my part. But the rifles? That’s just a flat-out falsehood. It’s the same problem I had with The Devil’s Brigade. The actual story is interesting enough that you don’t have to screw with it. So why screw with it?

In the end I think this is a good movie. The cinematography is great and I appreciate any film that lets the average American know that in WW2, the Russians lost a hell of a lot more than we did in beating the Germans. But it should’ve been a great movie. The decision to pay scant attention to history and an “eh” script kept it from that level.

On the Top 100 scale this would be down with The Devil’s Brigade if it wasn’t for the cinematography and fantastic opening sequence. But I don’t feel like I can push it past Waterloo. That movie had an even more epic feel and the script was simply better. There is no “I should have burned Berlin” line in Enemies At The Gate, no iconic role like Christopher Plummer as Wellington. Nor can it go past The Dirty Dozen, which set a standard for it's type of film.

It’s a “what could have been” movie. Sometimes those are the most frustrating ones to watch.


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