Published on July 7th, 2008 | by Chris0
Enemy at the Gates (2001)
Enemy at the Gates is a dark, bleak, ultimately depressing look at one of the major bloodbaths of World War II, namely the siege of Stalingrad. More to the point, its about the battle between two snipers. Not that it improves the overall tone of the picture or anything.
Right from the get-go, you know how the rest of the film is going to be. As the Russian soldiers are herded onto the trains toward Stalingrad, and they are basically dumped into the thick of it, facing the German bullets on one side, or their own if they attempt retreat. So who's side are we supposed to be on, here, anyway?
Regardless, one man, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) picks up a rifle and quickly gains the admiration of the local "Komissar," Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) who builds him up as a local hero, in an attempt to get some morale behind the city. Zaitsev continues on his sniping adventure (if you want to call it that) quickly fulfiling his destiny as the hero, much to the Chagrin of the Germans.
In response, the Germans bring in a ringer, er, I mean a star of their own, one Major Koenig (Ed Harris), an aristocrat and decorated hero of his own accord. From then on it becomes a battle of wits between the two.
But we should also mention the subplot going on, that of the love triangle (sigh) between Danilov, Zaitsev, and a local girl turned soldier, Tania (Rachel Weisz). Despite all of Danilov's conniving, she falls for Zaitsev, and nearly pits these two men against each other. Luckily, that plot takes a backseat to the real action.
Quite honestly this is a difficult film to sit through. Its good, but just the gritty feel of it, and some of the choices and actions of our "heroes" leave an unpleasant taste in your mouth. The entire opening sequence, where the Russians cut down their own retreating troops they've just dumped into the fray, only half of which were given rifles, just leaves you wondering what side we're supposed to take! That initial battle just stays with you.
Then the rest of the picture just "lives" in a dark world of dirt and smoke and grit. True to life, I suppose, but it only gets darker, as Koenig and Zaitsev both hide among the rotting corpses and other nefarious actions. The whole thing culminates in probably the darkest moment, as Zaitsev and Koenig wait it out in the trainyard, under the hanging body of the young double agent.... *Shiver*
Even the final bullet, the "victory" as it were, comes across as less than victorious, as Koenig realizes he's lost and Zaitsev follows through on his grandfather's advice on aiming his rifle.
Sigh, and then they make an attempt to end the picture on an emotional high note, as Zaitsev finds the injured, (but not as dead as Danilov had reported), Tania in a hospital. Again, sigh. It's just not enough to bring us back from the depths of the hell we've spent the last two hours in. Not even close.
Bob Hoskins does a smashing job portraying a younger Nikita Kruschev. Kudos to him, the casting and makeup crew for fitting that piece of the puzzle together. Doubtful there could have been a better match there. Law is excellent as the farmboy turned reluctant war hero. He manages to maintain a certain approachability in his character, maintaining a certain amount of "innocence" for lack of a better term. Fiennes, eh, as the "party" member I suppose he does OK, although his character seems to only serve as the third corner of the love triangle, and as a device to get Zaitsev into the papers. Although his pitting the young Sasha against Koenig, knowing full well the outcome was a particularly evil twist. And then there's Koenig. Harris does a fine job, but the character seems just rather one-dimensional to me. He seems to just be there to do a job, and nothing else. I guess that's fine, but I would have liked to see him developed a little more. As he is he's just your average Nazi stooge.
I suppose, that one could look at Enemy at the Gates and draw from it issues of class struggle (the farmer turned hero vs. the defeated aristocrat) but I think that would be pushing it. Unfortunately the whole package just seems bent on delivering one "shocking moment" after another. Yes these things happened, they were terrible, but don't try to cram it all down our throats in the span of one picture.
If they'd have cut out the "epic" battle scenes, such as the beginning, and the later air-raid sequence, and tightened it down to focus more on the "duel" between Zaitsev and Koenig, this would be a spectacular work. Unfortunately the wandering focus just gets in the way.
Enemy at the Gates still gets high marks, despite its flaws. Dark and gritty can be good, but I think they overdid it here, while still trying to throw in enough hope, and a "mainstream love story" angle just didn't help matters any.
As a last note, the DVD contains several deleted scenes. Some of which were rightfully cut, but a few of them would have made Enemy at the Gates make a lot more sense, and made it more interesting. Such as Kruschev's ramblings on about Stalin, and Danilov's speech in the trench.... Just some things to think about.
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Summary: Enemy at the Gates still gets high marks, despite its flaws. Dark and gritty can be good, but I think they overdid it here, while still trying to throw in enough hope, and a "mainstream love story" angle just didn't help matters any.