Enemy at the Gates

There’s ambition, and then there’s pretense. It’s a common mistake for both filmmakers and filmgoers to mistake the latter for the former. War movies and historical dramas seem to be the most vulnerable to this pitfall: see French director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Enemy at the Gates, along with The Thin Red Line (which, on second viewing, deserves far less than the two stars I awarded it), and Annaud’s own dreadful Seven Years in Tibet. In some cases, I think, directors feel such an intense emotional connection to their material that they decide to cram in every subplot they can think of; other times, as with Thin Red Line, there are gargantuan egoes at work. Both scenarios can prove unbearable.

Enemy at the Gates is hardly the worst case of this affliction, but it’s too long, too ponderous, too overblown. It tells of the World War II Battle of Stalingrad, arguably the bloodiest battle in recorded history. This was Hitler’s last stand in Russia and his attempt to dispirit the Allied forces and ensure a victory. The film’s focus, however, is much narrower than that, and the actual specifics of the battle are barely mentioned at all, except in the opening titles. The protagonist is Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law), a Russian soldier whose grandfather has taught him to shoot a gun from a very young age. He’s an expert marksman, able to shoot a person in the forehead from fifty yards away as if he was shooting point blank. He heroically saves himself and a fellow soldier from certain death by killing nearly a dozen Germans all by himself.

The Russian publicity machine, led by Officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), takes this and runs with it, quickly making him out to be a hero and inspiring other Russian men to fight on against the odds. The Germans respond by bringing in Major Koenig (Ed Harris), a sharpshooter of their own, to get rid of this young Russian before he can do any real damage. Meanwhile Zaitsev falls in love with Tania (Rachel Weisz), an affair that threatens his relationship with Danilov.

Just about everyone has compared the battle sequences, especially the opening one, with the notorious D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan. But Annaud never draws us in, never gives the movie the you-are-there feeling that Spielberg was able to muster. There are some excellent isolated scenes later in the film — I especially liked the part when Zaitsev uses glass to foil Koenig in a confrontation between the men — but the large-scale battle scenes are rather disappointing.

So, too, is the romance between Vassily and Tania, the depth quotient of which is approximately zero. The whole subplot feels tacked-on and unnecessary, especially considering the lip service that is paid to it here. Why insert it if you’re not going to develop it? Enemy at the Gates would have worked infinitely better as a shorter movie, focusing on the conflict between Zaitsev and Koening and abandoning the excess that takes the focus away from what’s important to the plot. I also didn’t buy the pat, phony happy ending that follows this tragic tale; I understand the importance of inserting at least one ray of light into what is debatably a mainstream movie, but why must it be so phony?

And why must foreign characters who speak English for the convenience of everyone involved always be played by British actors? Does the accent make them more exotic or something?

-- Eugene Novikov

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