Movie Review by Nigel A. Messenger
Starring: Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Bob Hoskins, Ed Harris
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Set in the middle of the invasion in 1942/43, the wartime epic takes on personal look at an important slice of Russian history. While the Russian military threw their army into the city of Stalingrad without being properly armed, their own officers kept discipline by shooting any of their own men who might even have tried to retreat and failure by officers to win the battle were rewarded with the chance to commit suicide rather than answer to Stalin. We are shown terrible scenes of masses of soldiers being moved down by bullets as they were forced to advance on the German army, many of the Russians without guns as only every other Russian soldier was issued a weapon and they were told that when the first soldier is killed the second must pick up their gun and fire it. After the initial battle we see a car racing through city streets layered with dead soldiers, the car is blown up by a German shell but the driver is thrown clear.
The driver, a Russian officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) attached to the press/propaganda unit hides among the bodies looking for cover and finds himself in a position to shoot some German officers relaxing. He picks up a rifle from a dead soldier and tries to aim but becomes aware of another Russian soldier Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) pretending to be dead. Vassili turns out to be an expert shot when given a rifle, killing all the German officers, and this key event starts off a relationship between the two men that will change the moral of the Red Army and the outcome of the battle for Stalingrad.
Danilov makes his superiors realise that forcing their army to fight through intimidation and murder is not the way to win, but instead the Russians needed heroes to give their people hope. Vassili becomes part of an elite sniper unit and his success is publicised everywhere and even the Germans realise he is a threat and decide to eliminate him by bringing in their best sniper Major Konig (Ed Harris). The film really turns at this point from an epic portrayal of mass killing into a far more personal battle between these two men, representing the best snipers of either side. Also thrown into the mix is a female Russian soldier Tania (Rachel Weisz), who while pursued by Danilov falls in love with Vassili causing resentment between these two friends.
ENEMY AT THE GATES is an incredibly hard hitting movie that presents a horrific and unglamourised look at the war from the soldiers perspective. It shows the stark contrast between the conditions and treatment of the Russian soldiers by their own Stalin-led officers against the far better conditions of the German army at that time. It’s also a very moving film and although I’m no history expert, it is based on a true story and we are told that Vassili Zaitsev’s rifle is still on display today at a Russian museum. Don’t go to this film to have a fun night out, but do go and see it as it not only reminds us of the stupidity and injustices of the power hungry at war but will stay in your thoughts for days afterwards.