With all of the recent hubbub about American Sniper lately I thought that I'd look back at another sharp- shooter-centric war movie: Enemy at the Gates.
The year is 1942 and the Nazi war machine is in full flight. The Germans have invaded Russia with their sights set on capturing the oil-rich Caucasus region. The final levy standing between the Wehrmacht tsunami and this key objective is Stalingrad. For Hitler, the destruction of the place that bears the name of his Bolshevik rival quickly becomes an obsession and soon the city is reduced to nothing but a rubble-strewn meat grinder. Ultimately hundreds of thousands of Axis and Allied soldiers would perish in this extended battle of attrition.
Thrown into this deadly mix is Vasily Zaytsev (Jude Law), a former sheep-herder from the Urals who nearly dies in one of many involuntarily-suicidal Red Army charges. After retrieving a rifle from a dead comrade he manages to save his own life and the hide of one Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). Impressed by the young marksman's deadly skills, Danilov convinces superior officer Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) to channel their propaganda efforts away from fear and threat and towards heroism. Danilov soon transforms Vasily into a bonafide Russian hero, replete with tales of inhuman skill and unflagging heroism.
Eventually Vasily's Nazi officer kill count snags the attention of the German High Command who introduce their own deadly sniper, Major Erwin König (Ed Harris), into the theater. The rest of the film details the deadly cat-and-mouse battle between the two rivals as well as a budding love triangle between Vasily, Danilov and a spirited and beautiful freedom fighter name Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz).
Writer / director Jean-Jacques Annaud kicks off the film with an epic set piece that I'm convinced was at least partly inspired by the harrowing D-Day beach landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan. The first thing we see is the incongruous sight of Red Army "recruits" being herded like cattle onto train cars and then transported to the front. When they arrive in Stalingrad they're immediately packed onto unprotected landing boats and then sent across the Volga River under a hail of withering German artillery fire and unopposed strafing runs by the Luftwaffe.
When the surviving soldiers reach the besieged bank of the Volga, their promptly hauled out of the boats and driven towards the front lines under threat of execution. En route officers armed with bullhorns shout the following chilling mantra over and over again:
"One out of two gets a rifle. The one with the rifle shoots! The one without, follows him! When the one with the rifle gets killed, the one who is following picks up the rifle and shoots!"
Needless to say endless waves of demoralized Soviet troops are callously mowed down by German machine gun and tank fire. There are few sequences on film that truly convey the nightmarish and futile nature of war and how cheap human life can be. This is really driven home moments later when the tattered remains of the Russian ranks try to retreat and are gunned down by their own barrier troops for "cowardice".
This terrifying prologue is an absolute triumph of direction, pacing, art design and visual effects. Clearly the scale of the scene was augmented somewhat with nascent-level CGI and digital matte paintings but Wolf Kroeger's gritty production design and the authentic costuming of Gudrun Leyendecker and Janty Yates help preserve a strong sense of authenticity. Throw in some crackerjack editing by Noëlle Boisson and
Humphrey Dixon and a stirring soundtrack by composer-extraordinaire James Horner and you've got a truly memorable sequence that packs an emotional wallop.
The cinematography of Robert Fraisse also deserves a special nod considering that the film's drab visual palette could easily have degenerated into a monochromatic mess. Mercifully, Fraisse uses a keen eye and some judicious color timing to wring a surprising amount of visual variety out of the sets and the costumes. At no point does the film become a chore to watch.
The screenplay was adapted from the book Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad by William Craig. It's pretty clear to even the most casual viewer that certain story elements have either been fabricated or enhanced to ramp up the drama. Mercifully these additions aren't treated as a burdensome afterthought and considerable screen time is earmarked to develop them.
For example the love triangle between the three leads actually emerges rather organically from the story proper. Starchy, bureaucratic Danilov clearly pines for the passionate, vengeful Tania but she's, in turn, completely smitten with the brave and heroic Vasily. Hints of their potential relationship are planted early and come to fruition in due time. As a side note, this also results in one of the most unconventional and smoldering sex scenes in cinema history as Tania seduces Vasily in the squalid and crowded confines of an underground muster station.
Equally fictionalized is the back-and-forth battle of wits between Vasily and his German counterpart. Again ample time is invested in turning König into a real, live three-dimensional human being who has his own motivations to enter the arena. The tactics and counter-moves employed by the both snipers have a field-tested authenticity that makes these scenes riveting to watch.
Pity the strong scripting isn't sustained throughout the entire film and Annaud and his co-screenwriter Alain Godard seem to lose their way slightly during the endgame. Naturally, König is tasked to do something uncharacteristically evil just to remind us that he's a filthy, stinkin', despicable Nazi. He does this merely to lure Vasily into a typical hackneyed Hollywood-style face-off that makes very little logical sense given what we've seen so far. It's as if König starts acting like an idiot merely because the screenwriters were getting concerned about the script's page-to-screen-time ratio.
In spite of this, the cast is universally solid right across the board. Yes, it would have been nice if only Russian actors were cast but, hey, what are you gonna do? First up, Jude Law gives a wonderfully honest and unpretentious showing as Vasily Zaytsev. It's pretty easy to buy him as a simple shepherd manages to persevere through terrible circumstances thanks to his unconventional skills. During a well-mounted scene in which Vasily tries to deter Tania from becoming a sniper he talks about what its like to have a potential victim in his sights:
"He doesn't know you exist, but at that moment you're closer to him than anyone else on earth. You see his face through the sign. You see whether he shaved or not. You can see whether he's married if he's got a wedding ring. It's not like firing at a distant shape. It's not just a uniform. It's a man's face. Those faces don't go away. They come back and they get replaced by more faces."
Coming off his stellar success in Shakespeare in Love three years earlier, Joseph Fiennes was a pretty hot property at the time. It's a bloody shame that he hasn't done much of note recently unless, of course, you include such time-wasting dreck as 2014's Hercules. His performance here is spot on: twitchy, skittish and informed by an undercurrent of self-doubt, longing and resentment. Danilov is brave and skilled in his own right but his ivory tower existence just isn't sexy enough to attract the passionate Tania.
Danilov does whatever he can to keep Tania out of harm's way, which sets up a Shakespearean-style tragedy in its own right. When Danilov writes a false, unflattering report about Vasily during a fit of jealousy, Fiennes had me convinced that this was going to be the least of his transgressions. His final speech is pretty meaty stuff, with plenty to say about the inherent flaws of communism specifically and human nature in general:
"I've been such a fool, Vasili. Man will always be a man. There is no new man. We tried so hard to create a society that was equal, where there'd be nothing to envy your neighbor. But there's always something to envy. A smile, a friendship, something you don't have and want to appropriate. In this world, even a Soviet one, there will always be rich and poor. Rich in gifts, poor in gifts. Rich in love, poor in love."
As a female character in a war movie, Rachel Weisz goes through a pretty respectable character arc as Tania. At first glance she appears to be a studious interpreter but as the siege of Stalingrad wears on she quickly becomes a highly-capable member of the militia. And then, when Nazi atrocities hit even closer to home, she transforms into a cold-hearted seeker of vengeance, which makes her rejection of Danilov's offer of comfort and safety forgivable. Weisz is surefooted throughout: alternately warm, fierce and charming. Her presence in the film is a great tribute to all of the real Soviet women who fought alongside men during World War II.
Now by all accounts Nikita Khrushchev was a relatively minor player in the defense of Stalingrad so I assume that his profile was increased just for name recognition value. Whatever the reason, it adds up to win for the audience since the part is played with gusto by the late, great Bob Hoskins. Clad in his authentic commissar uniform and transformed by a convincing make-up job, Hoskins vacillates between belligerence, ruthlessness and parent-like pride for his rising star Vasily. Whether he's reveling in coal black humor or delivering thinly-veiled threats to Danilov, Hoskins is equally game.
Ignoring the fact that everyone is slightly miscast due to the proliferation of English accents, Ed Harris feels particularly out of place here. Nevertheless he acquits himself rather well, turning in an understated and intense performance as Major Erwin König. Given what we eventually learn about König's personal ties to the battle, his emotionally-bloodless line deliveries are well in-step with these revelations. Contrary to his outward veneer of steely calm, Harris gives the impression of a tightly-coiled bear-trap that could spring at any moment. This helps to reconcile the character's increasingly-sloppy and erratic behavior towards the end of the film.
If the goal of Jean-Jacques Annaud and company was to convince the viewer that war is hell while highlighting the inherent bravery, fortitude and valor of its heroes, then Enemy at the Gates is a real winner. I can't wait to watch American Sniper to see how a modern story compares.