Hollywood takes an overdue look at the Eastern Front
Joseph Haschka | Glendale, CA USA | 05/22/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"After many major Hollywood epics about the war on the Western Front (THE LONGEST DAY, PATTON, A BRIDGE TOO FAR, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), it is long overdue that ENEMY AT THE GATES, centered on the pivotal battle for Stalingrad, should play to audiences ... particularly American audiences.The core of the plot is the personal duel between two expert snipers, the Red Army's Vasily Zaitsev (Jude Law) and the German Wehrmacht major, Koenig (Ed Harris), the latter brought into the Stalingrad cauldron to kill the former before he totally destroys the morale of the German troops trying to capture the city. It's a cat and mouse confrontation depicted with startling realism, though, in this case, the mouse is just as deadly as the cat. The rest of the film is just window dressing, especially the sappy love triangle between Zaitsev, political commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), and a female Red Army sniper, Tania, played by Rachel Weisz. The film, set among the rubble and destroyed factories of Stalin's city, is visually stunning. The performances of Law, Harris and Fiennes are excellent, as is that by Bob Hoskins, who plays Joe Stalin's political representative on the scene, Nikita Krushchev. My complaints center on the accents of the main characters, which don't sound Russian by any stretch of the imagination, the previously-mentioned and totally superfluous love story, and the fact that the Krushchev is given way too much screen time at the expense of the Russian general, Chuikov, who doesn't even appear, even though he was the Red Army's military commander whose gritty defense of the city ultimately prevailed.This story of the duel between Zaitsev and his German nemesis is based in fact, though a better telling of the tale is the work of book fiction, WAR OF THE RATS, by David Robbins. If you're interested in this footnote to the Stalingrad struggle, the book is a "must", and the film will serve as excellent visual reinforcement."
Both good and disappointing (contains spoilers)
Jonathan D. Eckel | Los Angeles, CA USA | 08/19/2001
(3 out of 5 stars)
"It is so gratifying to finally see a major motion picture made about the WWII Russian Front. After all, it was the Red Army that inflicted 80% of Germany's total casualties in the war, a fact that many Americans remain sadly ignorant of. It is high time we get past Cold War attitudes and pay tribute to the heroism of the Soviet Union in its bitter but ultimately triumphant struggle against Nazism. _Enemy at the Gates_ is a movie of epic proportions, featuring good overall performances by a solid cast as well as a spectacular cinematic recreation of the bombed-out city of Stalingrad. Still, the movie tends to drag at times, and could have been much better. The love triangle subplot was more of a distraction than anything else, taking up time that could have been better used to tell more of the awesome story of the battle of Stalingrad as a whole. Rather than simply having the German commander state, "These snipers are demoralizing my people," it would have been nice to have actually "seen" a little bit more of how the actions of Zaitsev and the Soviet snipers wore down the vaunted German infantry. Regrettably, the duel between Zaitsev and Koenig seemed to be taking place in a separate reality than the war itself, almost giving the impression that both sides had an unwritten agreement to let the two rivals shoot it out without interference. Also, the abrupt ending gave no explanation as to how the Red Army, seemingly on the ropes throughout the movie, suddenly emerged victorious. It would not have taken much film time to explain how this came about: the tenacity of Stalingrad?s defenders drew the mechanized German forces into costly city fighting, allowing the Red Army?s powerful reserves massed to the north and south to punch through the weak Axis flanks and encircle the Germans. Saving Private Ryan succeeded in telling much of the story of the Normandy invasion in a way that neatly complimented the movie?s plot. I wish that Enemy at the Gates had made more of a similar effort.I know that ?dramatic license? is a fact of life with historical movies, but it is way overdone in this one. The opening sequence of the Volga crossing is powerful filmmaking and is mostly accurate up until Zaitsev and his fellow soldiers enter the city. The following part about only every other man receiving a weapon and being sent of in a suicide charge is purely the stuff of legend, though, more fitting of the WWI Russian Army or a Soviet punishment battalion. The reality was that the Red Army in Stalingrad fought mostly in small detachments armed with submachine guns rather than rifles, moving stealthily amongst the rubble and ambushing the Germans in brutal house-to-house fighting. This sort of close-quarter combat, where the front lines were often separated by less than 20 yards (or even a mere hallway or staircase), would have played out on screen just as well (better, in fact) as the ?charge of the Red horde? that is the stuff of popular imagination rather than true history. The conclusion of this scene is misleading, as well. The Soviets did shoot many deserters who attempted to flee the front lines, but this degree of harshness did not apply to survivors of a failed attack as shown in the film. The commanders of the Red Army were often brutal towards their men, but not quite that brutal. As for the way the sniper duel is finally brought to a close, with Koenig walking upright in plain view towards what he suspects is the spot where he has just shot Zaitsev dead, it is just ridiculous. Not even a rookie sniper would have made such a fatal error, much less an instructor.The Soviet characters all share the names of actual people, but none are true to their real-world counterparts. Vassili Zaitsev was more of a natural leader than the movie gives him credit for, not just a shy boy from the Urals reluctantly pushed into the limelight. Danilov, the political officer, appears to have been crafted by the screenwriters almost solely in order to make a faddish intellectual statement about the pitfalls of Communist idealism. The real Danilov was shot (though not fatally) when he foolishly stood up to point out Major Koenig?s location to Zaitsev, not in an act of suicide. Tania Chernova?s on-screen character was the furthest from reality, though. She was actually a short, temperamental blonde who had previously fought as a partisan in Byelorussia and the Ukraine. A veteran killer by the time she arrived in Stalingrad and possessing a single-minded hatred of the Germans, the real-life Tania could hardly have been more different from the sensitive student/soldier who never actually fires her rifle once throughout the whole film. Also, Chernova was likely Ukrainian, not Jewish (only worth noting because of the widespread myth that most Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis as liberators from Soviet rule). Ironically, the character that seemed truest to reality was Major Koenig, a shadowy figure who some historians claim might never have existed.Though I used most of the space here to criticize this movie, I guess the fact that I bought the DVD means that I nonetheless enjoyed it. I probably would have rated it better were I not such a Russian history buff. Do yourself a favor and take the time to read both _Enemy at the Gates_, by William Craig (a very readable non-fiction account of the whole Stalingrad campaign) and _War of the Rats_, by David Robbins (a novelized version of the sniper duel that is both a better story and closer to historical fact than this movie was). My main regret is that the film?s potential was largely squandered to make room for unneeded political rhetoric and melodrama. I only hope that its mediocre performance will not discourage film producers from backing other Russian Front projects in the future."
Finally there's a movie about the Eastern Front
The Siege | Taiwan | 08/16/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I have studied the Eastern Front for many years, and finally there is a movie I can see about it.The opening scenes, especially on the young Red Army soldiers cross the Volga river into the battlefield, were both realistic and visually stunning; which painted a gruesome and grandiose picture of all the books I have read regarding the battle of Stalingrad. Another strength about the movie is that it showed the tremendous sacrifice and suffering of Russian soldiers who fought on despite tremendous casualty from German fire and NKVD (Soviet State Security forces) executions. I think this film has brilliantly captured the fact that however much the Soviet press in WWII played up the propaganda about personal heroism during the war, the authorities had a total lack of respect for individual lives. According to Antony Beevor's book on Stalingrad, Chuikov, the commander of the Red Army in Stalingrad that disappointingly did not show up in this film, was quoted as saying "Every man must become one of the stones defending Stalingrad." Perhaps the real horror of the battle of Stalingrad was that Russian soldiers were used as discardable weapons in order to defeat the enemy, which utimately saved the world from Nazi domination. The cinematography of the duel between two snipers (Ed Harris and Jude Law) was very good, but I believe too much time was spent on this theme. I did not care for the love story that kind of got stuffed into the movie perhaps to soften up the hard edges of battle. As a war movie, "Eenmy at the Gates" have some obvious weak spots. However, overall I am just very happy to see a well-produced movie on one of the most decisive battles of the Eastern Front, and hope that more films will be made regarding this subject in the future."
Superb Depiction Of The Seige Of Stalingrad!
Barron Laycock | Temple, New Hampshire United States | 11/20/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Seldom is an event in history so well rendered as is the classic battle for Stalingrad during WWII in this superb film about a classic sniper's duel between a young and renowned Soviet rifleman who had become a virtual legend to both his fellow soldiers and the ragged proletariat back home, on the one hand, and an older and highly decorated Wehrmacht officer who has come to eliminate the young Soviet phenomenon for propaganda purposes. One is sucked immediately in the hopeless vortex of the battlefield, a place where senseless full frontal charges into the German positions are ordered by incompetent (and cowering) Soviet officers, and where raw youthful recruits rarely last long enough to have their own rifle to fight with. The sequences in which the vanguard is mowed down and those behind them literally leap through the mud to retrieve rifles and some ammo capture the maximum mismatch of well-trained and battle-hardened German soldiers face-off untrained and unseasoned Soviet inductees. The cast is superb, from Jude Law, playing Vassili Zaitsev, the young Soviet sniper, to the always terrific Ed Harris, as the German major sent to find and kill Vassili, and with Bob Hoskins playing a young and courageous Nikita Krushchev, determined to turn the situation at Stalingrad around, and Rachel Weisz as a female sniper enamored of Vassili, and Joseph Fiennes, as a young Russian propaganda officer who propels Vassili into an unwanted limelight and celebrity and comes to confuse Vassili's success with his own. As the film progresses we see again and again the ways in which the men and women caught in the murderous crossfire and struggling to survive in the ruined chaos of what was left of the once marvelous city of Stalingrad. Here death is literally just around the corner, accompanied by a scant instant of blinding sound and pain, and surviving is as much a matter of luck and placement as of skill and determination. The denizens of the long siege of Stalingrad and the associated prosecution of the stalemated battle prosecute their efforts with ragged fatalism, and so many die from wounds or hunger or disease that death becomes a virtual constant companion for each of them, and each of the characters is transformed in some fashion by the experience. What is most amazing about the classic snipers' duel is the fact that it is all based on historical fact, and the eventual survivor of the duel goes on to live a long and satisfying life thereafter. Given the insanity and cruelty of war, such instances are examples of the old saw that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. This is a wonderful albeit grim and sometimes depressing movie, and one I can heartily recommend. Enjoy!"