Enemy at the Gates

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Enemy at the Gates DVD

Enemy at the Gates is a movie directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud in 2001, adapted from a book written by William Craig which loosely described events surrounding World War II Soviet sniper Vasily Zaitsev and his German rival, Major König, during the battle of Stalingrad, 1942-1943. Another book called The War of the Rats formed the basis for the sniper duel element of the screenplay.

The aim of the film is to describe the role of propaganda in both sides of the war, instrumentalising the sniper-warfare as a metaphor of the fight of the two armies.

The film was criticized both in Russia and in the West for taking considerable liberties with the facts; in both its plot and in the depictions of its characters (notably Fiennes' character, Danilov, and the German sniper König), it varies widely from the historical record. It met mixed box-office success. However, the opening scenes, where Red Army troops cross the Volga under heavy German fire, have been widely praised.

Tagline: A hero never chooses his destiny. His destiny chooses him.


Main cast

Plot details

The fortunes of the World War II on the Eastern Front were played out both in a macrocosmic and a microcosmic way, the former being the German army versus the Soviet army, the latter being the personal duel of two opposing infantrymen in war-torn Stalingrad in the autumn of 1942.

Such is the setting for this movie, which deals with the brutality of the no-holds-barred war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, where no quarter was expected or given. Stalingrad was to be epitomized as the turning point of the war on the Eastern Front (and the graphic showing the map of Nazi-occupied Europe being “inked” over by a spreading swastika showed this memorably), yet the focus for this film was on four particular people: sniper Zaitzev (Jude Law), upon whose real-life experiences in Stalingrad the film is based, the political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), their mutual love interest Tania (Rachel Weisz) and the German army sniper Major König (Ed Harris).

While the Germans do their level best to kill every Soviet army soldier in sight both on the ground and from the air, the Soviets have to kill the enemy as well as avoid being shot themselves for “cowardice”. In one harrowing scene, shortly after Zaitzev lands ashore after being nearly killed while crossing the Volga in a flimsy passenger boat, soldiers fall back after an utterly ill-thought-out infantry attack involving both armed and unarmed soldiers against enemy positions, such was the desperation – and absurdity – behind the “tactics” intended to throw the enemy back, only to be mown down by fellow soldiers at the behest of fanatical “no-retreat” officers.

And yet even the German commander-in-chief General Paulus (Matthias Habich) tells König upon first meeting him that his army “is not designed for this kind of fighting”, a sign that defeat was already on the way - hence, the (unrealistic) idea that the killing of Zaitzev might somehow demoralize the Soviets to such an extent that they may lose heart in fighting for Stalingrad’s survival. Certainly, Khrushchev (played with vigour by Bob Hoskins), after hearing a report that the famed shepherd boy from the Urals had been killed, believed that with that memorable line to Danilov, “What do they [the Germans] have to do? Dangle his body in front of our men?!”

Many war movies inevitably involve principal male characters falling in love with female characters, yet such sub-plots usually are seen as doing more to damage, if not derail, the main story. In this case, it is the “cat-and-mouse” sniper duel between Zaitzev and König, with “moves” being played out according to information being passed on to both men by a boy named Sacha Filipov (Gabriel Marshall-Thomson), who believes in Zaitzev yet ultimately loses his life in a shocking way.

With the “love triangle” involving Zaitzev, Danilov and Tania, it is tempting to believe that it is totally unnecessary and might lead to many in the audience cringing to the point of frustration, given the amount of time devoted to it. Nevertheless, instead of putting Russia first, Danilov’s interest in Tania and his jealousy betray his weak character, as he is prepared both to abandon his main propaganda tool and to betray his comrade by daring to report to the authorities Zaitzev’s alleged “change of attitude”, much to the shock of the woman who has to type his lies (although, curiously, this betrayal is never followed up). Zaitzev, even admits to Danilov at one point that he is on the verge of cracking up, because he is being made to carry a burden that he would otherwise never have chosen had he realized what Danilov was getting him into. Only the manner of Sacha’s death stiffens the Russian sniper’s resolve to kill the German responsible - even if it was deemed unlikely (by cinema-goers) that Zaitzev and König would be by themselves in their final confrontation, with no other soldier of either army present to witness it.

As a war film, “Enemy at the Gates” has more going for it than some might suggest. As well as Robert Fraisse’s photography of a city being bombarded and destroyed, the dark colors and constantly burning buildings creating the mood, Alain Godard and Jean-Jacques Annaud, both of whom had worked together on “The Name of the Rose” (1986), produced a movie dealing with one of the darkest chapters in world history with their meticulous attention to detail. Even the scene of soldiers partying where Zaitzev tells Tania, “These people know they’re going to die, so each night they come back is a bonus - it's just something you have to accept around here”, shows just how characteristically the Russians viewed both their lives and the situation in general, as they battled to keep Stalingrad in their hands, which they eventually succeeded in doing after 180 days of the hardest fighting ever experienced by two opposing armies during what the Soviets termed the “Great Patriotic War”.


External links

fr:Stalingrad (film) id:Enemy at the Gates


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