Film Commentary [3-21-01]
Saving Comrade Ryan - - Enemy at the Gates
Genre: War/drama
Grade = B

This year's first big budget release Enemy at the Gates is the story of a duel between Russian sniper Vassily Zaitsev (pretty boy actor Jude Law) and Nazi sniper Major Koenig (Ed Harris) in the Autumn of 1942 in the middle of the Battle of Stalingrad. Vassily is a Russian peasant who learned the art of sharpshooting from his grandfather guarding their flock of sheep in the Ural Mountains. Major Koenig is a German (Prussian?) aristocrat who learned his trade hunting deer. Thus we have the story not just between the Soviets and the Nazis, but also one of class struggle which the great uneducated American public can relate too when they know nothing about the war on the eastern front in World War Two (or as the Ruskies say - The Great Patriotic War).

For the historically disinclined, in 1942 Russia, Hitler has unleashed his second big offensive in the eastern theater of operations with the goal of capturing the oil fields in the Caucasus Mountains (north of Iran) and Baku on the Caspian Sea. Situated on the Volga River is the city of Stalingrad (originally and now renamed Petrograd). Hitler decides that he must capture the namesake of his Bolshevik menace at all costs. Stalin decides that he simply cannot let the city that bears his name fall to the hated invaders. Human life means nothing to either of these two psychopaths. Thus, both the German Wehrmacht and the Red Army become locked in combat over a place the Nazis should have just bypassed on their way their critically needed oil reserves, with both continually feeding in divisions and regiments until both are at the point of exhaustion and 5,000 a day die in combat.

The film opens with Vassily and his company being transported to Stalingrad by train in a locked freight car. Disembarking at the Volga, the company is herded onto river boats for transport straight into the city. Those that try to escape over the side are shot. Entering the city, every other soldier is given a rifle with the one behind him told that when the rifle holder is shot he is to pick up the rifle and shoot. They are marched to the front line inside the city and are told to charge the German defensive line in Red Square. Needless to say, they are cut down like wheat. When the survivors of the attack attempt to retreat, Soviet NKVD (precursor to the KGB) troops machine gun them down as cowards.

Vassily and Political Officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) pretend to be dead in an empty fountain* in Red Square in order to survive the onslaught. However, when they spot Nazi officers across the square, Vassily quickly kills five of them. Later Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) arrives to take command as the political officer for the front. Standing before the grouped political commissars who quake with fear that they will be liquidated, Khrushchev demands new methods to help the Russians fight harder. Danilov boldly states that the army needs a hero to look up to - and he's got one - Vassily. Thus Vassily becomes the most celebrated Soviet hero of the war. The propagandists make the most of him as his kill count climbs to over 50 Nazi officers. German commander of the Stalingrad front General Paulus brings in Major Koenig to counter Vassily. Koenig's job is to hunt down and eliminate the Soviet hero. Now a game of cat and mouse begins with Koenig as the cat.

Directed and written by Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name of the Rose, Quest for Fire) and at $85 million in cost, this is the most expensive European film ever made. Unfortunately for the financiers, the movie is dragged to a screeching halt by the tacked on love affair between Vassily and female Soviet soldier Tania (Rachel Weisz) a with a love triangle with Danilov pinning for her thrown on top. This love triangle was absolutely improbable, unconvincing and thoroughly contrived in every possible manner. Russia should extradite screenwriter and stand him up against a wall for this travesty of storytelling.

The film should have simply followed the psychological duel between the snipers rather than clutter up what would have otherwise been a great war film. I had believed that Hollywood had abandoned this tiresome vehicle that has been the standard for most war films from the first world war to the present with the great films like Saving Private Ryan and the outstanding but underrated Gettysburg which had virtually no female characters at all. While Ryan blended the tried and true method of storytelling of the interpersonal relationships of fighting soldiers under combat conditions with new and innovative cinematographic techniques to show the anarchy and horror of combat at the individual level, Gettysburg should be noted as pure history as well as being the most accurate depiction of nineteenth century combat techniques and strategy. But then for every great film, no matter the genre, there are a hundred mediocre.

Besides the ludicrous subplots, another problem with the film is the fact that the Russians all spoke with British accents and the Germans with American. It made the peasant Vassily sound like he was educated at Oxford and Eton. It felt like you never knew when the characters were going to break for tea. Besides, everyone knows that the British make the best Nazis. The fact that characters in the background sang songs and shouted in Russian and German certainly didn't help lend.

Nonetheless, the film is outstanding in its air of authenticity showing the horror and carnage of the Battle of Stalingrad in explosive and blood-washed battle scenes as well has the despicable treatment of the average Russian recruit at the hands of the Red Army, the deification of Stalin and the fate of Soviet commanders for the penalty of failure.

The film boasts an outstanding performance by Bob Hoskins as Nikita Khrushchev who lends a combination of realism and menace to the performance. Ron Pearlman also hands in an exceptional performance as Koulikov, a Russian sniper who knew Major Koenig before the war and is assigned to Vassily when it becomes know that Koenig is after him. Pearlman is one of Annaud's little favorites, also appearing in The Name of the Rose and Quest for Fire. Law does manage to downplay his pretty boy looks a bit by assuming a three day growth of facial hair throughout the film, but Fiennes is severely understated and does not project the persona of a true Soviet political officer. He simply doesn't have the air of ruthlessness and viciousness such people needed to send twenty million people to their deaths under Stalin's regime.

But then again I though Braveheart got pretentious.

* This fountain contains statuary of a ring of children dancing hand-in-hand around an alligator. Film of this fountain in the midst of battle is one of the most famous shot on the eastern front. This original footage was used by Frank Capra in his war-time documentary Why We Fight - The Battle of Russia as well as numerous History Channel documentaries. It has even been used in Alex's brainwashing scenes in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

Read about the Battle of Stalingrad in Britannica.

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