Sunday 9 January 2011

Movie Review: Enemy At The Gates (2001)

Major Wold War Two films that focus on the Eastern Front are few and far between. Enemy At The Gates is a powerful and captivating look into the hell that was the battle of Stalingrad, as told through the story of real-life Soviet hero Vassili Zaitsev.

It's late in 1942, and the all-conquering German invaders have arrived at the gate of Stalingrad.  The under-powered Soviet army makes a stand to hold the city at all costs, resulting in a meat-grinder of a pitched battle that would last for months. Thrown into the battle on the Soviet side is green recruit Zaitsev (Jude Law), an uneducated shepherd from the Ural mountains. Although he barely survives his first chaotic battle, Zaitsev soon proves himself an ace sniper. With the Soviets desperate for heroes to inspire their troops, propaganda officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) convinces the army commander Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) to build Zaitsev up as a heroic figure and an inspiration for the defenders of the City.

Danilov befriends Zaitsev and sets the propaganda machine in motion. With Zaitsev's reputation spreading, and the number of his German victims growing, the Germans bring in an ace sniper of their own, Erwin Konig (Ed Harris), to eliminate Zaitsev. Meanwhile, both Danilov and Zaitsev are falling in love with Tania (Rachel Weisz), a citizen-turned soldier, while Sacha, a young Soviet boy, begins to fulfill a dangerous double-agent role, apparently helping Konig to find Zaitsev while really feeding intelligence to Danilov.

With the battle of Stalingrad at a bloody stalemate, Tania creates tension between Danilov and Zaitsev, who is also playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with Konig in the ruins of a destroyed city.

Enemy At The Gates is a grand, satisfying, and unflinching war film.  An American / European co-production, it's the story of one of the most pivotal battles of the war, as the German machine was finally brought to its knees, its eastern expansion halted once and for all. After Stalingrad, the German retreat would begin, ending with the Soviet army in Berlin.  The script, by director Jean-Jacques Annaud and Alain Godard, based on the William Craig book, does distill the battle to the struggle between individuals, an effective technique but perhaps in this case resulting in a focus that is too narrow.

The second half of the film does get obsessed with personal conflicts at the expense of the overall battle. The love triangle becomes a relatively unwelcome diversion, and the duel between the two snipers takes over as an overwhelming metaphor for the larger war. The strength of the cast allows the film to survive despite the human drama taking centre stage, but a bit more context and bit less tiresome self-centred soul-searching would have helped.

Enemy At The Gates looks spectacular, capturing the utter agony of war. The recreation of a city reduced to rubble but still being contested by two massive armies is breathtaking. Cinematographer Robert Fraisse lyrically films a dead city reduced to its most elemental structures of crushed concrete, twisted steel, destroyed buildings, and dust, and fills it with the gruesome sight of equally crushed, twisted, and destroyed bodies turning to dust -- everywhere. It is one of the most clear-eyed views of gory warfare put on the screen, and Annaud ensures that the cameras continue to stare as bullets hit humans and open wounds belch out still-pumping blood.  The human enemy may be at the gates, but the real enemy of humanity is war itself.

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