The History Place - Movie Review

Enemy at the Gates

By Fred Harvey
The History Place

Two snipers snipe away at each other in this interesting World War II drama based on a true story set during the Battle of Stalingrad.

Anyone who watched the World War II classic Saving Private Ryan remembers the fascination of watching the highly skilled American sniper knocking off Nazis while citing various religious platitudes.

Enemy at the Gates, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, has that same level of fascination as we watch the top Soviet sniper at work in the bombed-out ruins of Stalingrad. Our sniper, Vassili Zaitsez, played by Jude Law, is elevated to the level of national hero by Soviet propagandists hoping to boost morale among their front line soldiers amid the overwhelming Nazi onslaught.

Soviet newspapers even publish a running tally of his kills. Vassili and his comrades are so efficient at targeting Nazi officers that they wind up lowering overall morale among the German troops. To get even, the Nazis send their top sniper to find Vassili. From this point onward it becomes a hunter's game in which the two enemy snipers patiently track down each other like skilled woodsmen in search of much wanted prey.

This film is definitely worth seeing just to get a good look at what the actual Nazi-Soviet death struggle might have looked like at Stalingrad. However, this is not a battle film. There are only limited fighting sequences, which are used to set up the rest of the story. So anyone looking for a big Battle of Stalingrad movie might be somewhat disappointed.

The few battle sequences are very well done, arguably on a par with Saving Private Ryan. They reveal how badly off the average Soviet solder was back then. There were not even enough rifles to go around. Both armed and unarmed infantrymen were forced into World War I style human wave assaults against the well-equipped Germans. Anyone refusing to participate in the assault, or caught retreating, was shot on the spot by Soviet security forces. As a result, the Soviets wound up losing over a million men during the six month-long battle.

So how much of this sniper stuff is fact and how much is fiction? Well, the film makers themselves admit they don't know for sure. There absolutely was a Soviet sniper named Vassili and he was very active during the Battle of Stalingrad. But his reputation was also greatly embellished by the Soviets for their own propaganda purposes. It is not known for example if there ever was a German super-sniper sent to get him, since there was no record of it found in Germany. The film makers have thus embellished upon the embellishment to come up with their script. So, what you have is a work of fiction based on a real character, about whom not much is really known.

The only big flaw with this film is the casting of so many British actors to play the Soviets. Naturally, they have distinctly British mannerisms and speech, such as saying 'right' meaning something similar to the American okay.

The credibility of this film would have been greatly enhanced if Russian actors played the Soviets and Germans played Germans, or if serious effort had been put into dialogue coaching. The decision by the film's director not to de-anglicize the actors playing Soviets results in much distraction. These guys don't behave or sound anything like Soviet fighters.

The little Stalingrad boy in this film, who is befriended by our sniper, sounds like he just stepped off the cricket field at Eaton. In all of Russia, there must have been at least one 12-year-old kid who could have played that role.

I'd rather watch a film with subtitles featuring genuine Russians and Germans than watch an ethnically confused flick like this.

The American actor Ed Harris plays the Nazi sniper, and he is more believable as a Nazi than the English guys are as Soviets, although he occasionally speaks Hollywood German as in 'Vee will vin zee war.' Also, the masses of German soldiers in the battle scenes shout at each other in German, while the Soviets shout in English.

Dialogue troubles aside, it's just so nice to finally see a movie examining the Soviet experience during World War II, since the majority of existing dramas are about American and British wartime experiences.

The Soviets fought and died by the millions to defeat Hitler's invading armies. Nearly 80 percent of German military casualties suffered during World War II occurred on the Eastern Front at the hands of the Soviets. Clearly, the Soviets bore the brunt of the fighting in Europe.

Perhaps it's time for Russian film makers to have a crack at telling their own war story.

Rated R - For violence.

Enemy at the Gates - Official Website
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