ENEMY AT THE GATES
Stalingrad, 1942-43. It was the bloodiest single battle in the known history of war, with more than one million perishing of wounds, disease, and the bitter cold of winter. Like Napoleon a century earlier, Hitler came to Stalingrad with the aim of breaking the spirit of Russia, and, also like the French little general, he was faced with catastrophic losses. The toll taken upon the German army at Stalingrad represented one of the turning points of World War II. Most history experts agree that had Hitler not persisted in trying to take the Soviet city in what turned into a personal contest with Stalin, the Third Reich might have triumphed on its western front.
Like Joseph Vilsmaier's powerful 1993 feature, Stalingrad, Enemy at the Gates elects to view this conflict from the point-of-view of a limited group of characters, rather than attempting to tackle the battle in an epic format. The film takes actual historical figures and imbues them with traits that allow their private struggle to mirror the overall conflict. However, as interesting as some of the ideas underlying the film are, and as technically adept as the production is, I had a hard time liking Enemy at the Gates. There's an emotional coolness to the picture and the characters are kept at a distance. There's also a lack of dramatic tension. The movie always moves in the direction of an inevitable conclusion, with minimal suspense along the way. As fascinated as I was by the historical backdrop against which the struggle occurs, I found it difficult to care one way or another about which characters lived or died.
The movie opens in September 1942. The Germans and Russians are engaged in a fierce battle for control of Stalingrad, and both sides acknowledge that, from a propaganda standpoint, the city is the key to whether the Soviet Union stands or falls. Into this conflict comes Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law), a rural farm worker who has arrived in Stalingrad as a soldier. He quickly shows his mettle as a sharpshooter, and a local political officer, Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), works to develop his legend to mammoth proportions. As Danilov argues to Krushchev (Bob Hoskins), who has come to Stalingrad to oversee the city's defense, the Soviet Union needs heroes to boost morale, and he has decided to build Vassily into one. The Germans counter by bringing in their own renowned sniper, Major Koenig (Ed Harris). Soon, Vassily and Koenig are locked in a life-and-death struggle that is played out in the ruined streets of the city. Meanwhile, Vassily and Danilov have both fallen in love with Tania (Rachel Weisz), and their rivalry over the woman threatens their friendship.
Enemy at the Gates has all the elements necessary for a compelling war film, but the lack of character depth coupled with director Jean-Jacques Annaud's detached style, makes watching this movie an uninvolving experience. There were times when I admired Enemy at the Gates, but I was never really drawn into the story. The cat-and-mouse games between Vassily and Koenig, which form the movie's backbone, are not suspenseful. Instead, they feel perfunctory and obligatory. We realize that nothing is going to happen to resolve the conflict between these two until the end of the movie, so all of the in-between shoot-outs are padding. (Incidentally, this is the same problem I have with many traditional Westerns.) The various subplots, which have been added to give the story additional meat, are predominantly underdeveloped. The most interesting of these - Danilov's building up of Vassily's reputation (followed by a hurried attempt to tear it down) - is presented almost as an afterthought. The use of propaganda to fashion heroes is potent stuff, and deserves a more comprehensive exploration than what Enemy at the Gates offers. In addition, the romantic triangle between Vassily, Danilov, and Tania is written and developed on the level of a
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