October 14, 2020

Enemy at the Gates (2001)
Grade: 68/100

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Stars: Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Joseph Fiennes

What it's about. A World War II drama set in Stalingrad (present-day Volgograd). Nazi Germany invaded erstwhile ally Russia in 1941. By late August 1942, the Germans reached Stalingrad, and occupied much of the city. Zaitsev (Jude Law), Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), and Tania (Rachel Weisz) are among the Soviet soldiers brought in to defend Stalingrad.

They survive a horrific first day that decimates most of the incoming forces. Zaitsev becomes a heroic sniper. His exploits are touted by Danilov, who publishes a propaganda military newsletter. Tania, an attractive brunette, arouses Danilov, but she has greater interest in Zaitsev.

Zaitsev's success leads Germany to send in their best sniper, König (Ed Harris), to counter and eliminate Zaitsev. Zaitsev is teamed with another veteran sniper, Koulikov (Ron Perlman), to in turn eliminate Zaitsev. Cheerful preteenager Sacha (Gabriel Thomson) is a double agent reporting to both Zaitsev and König. Sacha's world-weary mother (Eva Mattes) is a local resistance leader. Future Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) is the military officer in charge.

The movie takes its title from William Craig's non-fiction book Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad.. Craig's account of the Zaitsev-König sniper duel takes only a few pages, and was based on Zaitsev's memoir Notes of a Sniper.

How others will see it. The film was panned in both Russia and Germany, due to its unrealistic depiction of the Battle of Stalingrad. Snipers played only a minor role in the campaign, which ended in November 1942 when more than a million Soviet troops were shipped in and surrounded the German occupiers. The Germans ran out of supplies during the harsh Russian winter and were obliged to surrender.

Nonetheless, the movie was a box office success, particularly in America, aided no doubt by its A-list actors. Consequential festival nominations were sparse, with the most prestigious coming from the European Film Awards.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has a big 240K user votes. The user rating (7.6 out of 10) is high, and consistent across all demographics. The user reviews fall into two categories. The majority of viewers enjoy the moviestars, the snipers' duel, and the Zaitsev-Tania-Danilov love triangle. They care not one bit about whether the movie is accurate. A minority deride the movie for its revisionist history.

How I felt about it. The most obvious criticism are the historical inaccuracies. The movie mostly takes place in the harsh Russian fall and winter, but nobody wears any winter gear, and Sacha is dressed up in shorts like an English schoolboy on summer break. The Battle of Stalingrad, as depicted here, comes down to a sniper's duel, when it was primarily won by a huge influx of Russian troops that fought the Germans (and their Axis-occupied conscripted troops) house to house.

Khrushchev was a political operative and never in charge of Soviet troops in Stalingrad. The final-scene romantic reunion between Zaitsev and Tania never happened. König may never have existed; Craig takes the account from Zaitsev's memoirs. Researchers have attempted to confirm what Zaitsev wrote about König, but have come up with nothing. The child go-between is apparently lifted from the Soviet film Ivan's Childhood.

But Enemy at the Gates is not a documentary, nor does it pretend to be. Suppose we forget all about the Battle of Stalingrad, and instead place the movie in the Nazi occupation resistance category, e.g. Casablanca (1942), a highly regarded movie not noted for its accurate depiction of Morocco.

Then, it becomes a good movie, though it fizzles out a bit as it dawdles toward its predictable finale. Aside from Hoskins' near-comical portrayal of Khrushchev, and the odd premise of a Russian child conversing in English with a German officer, the movie is generally worthwhile. The slaughter of troops in the opening minutes shows war in its true light, as state-sanctioned mass murder.