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Courage Under Fire

The true story of a Soviet hero during WWII is beautifully rendered in Enemy at the Gates.



You know the Cold War is long over when a major American studio releases a film about a Soviet war hero. Paramount’s riveting Enemy at the Gates is told from a Soviet perspective, directed by a French filmmaker, and stars British actors. Its story of courage in the face of overwhelming odds, however, transcends nationality.

Vassily Zaitsev, a shepherd from the Urals, became a national hero during the apocalyptic Battle of Stalingrad. An expert marksman, he rose to mythic status as a symbol of hope during the devastating siege of 1942, in which more than a million Soviet soldiers perished. Several times decorated with the Order of Lenin, Zaitsev became an official Hero of the Soviet Union for his wartime exploits. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Lover) collaborated with screenwriter Alain Godard to bring Zaitsev’s heroic story to American audiences.

Steven Spielberg was widely lauded for the brutally realistic recreation of D-Day in Saving Private Ryan. In Enemy at the Gates, Annaud matches that realism, stunningly recreating a defining battle of World War II.

By August of 1942, the Nazis had laid waste to Europe and the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. To Hitler, crushing Stalingrad became a personal vendetta. After 180 days of assault, the city was nothing but crumbled ruins. Those who survived the relentless air and land raids starved amid the rubble. Stalingrad and the war itself seemed lost. Soviet soldiers and generals alike fled the seemingly suicidal efforts to stave off the Nazis. To curb the mass desertions, Red officers shot thousands of their own men. The choice was a bleak one—fall to the bullets of the attackers or those of your own officers.

A clever Soviet propagandist had a better idea. Instead of making examples of deserters, give the battle-weary troops hope, heroes and stories of victory. The hero he helped create was Vassily Zaitsev, a sharp shooter who single-handedly picked off many unsuspecting Nazi officers. The Red Army not only had a hero, but a renewed hope that helped them take back Stalingrad and turn the tide of the war.

Annaud tells this fascinating story with mind-boggling cinematography that graphically portrays the chaos and carnage of battle. The scale of this epic film is astonishing. Particularly extraordinary is a bombed out factory with a labyrinth of piping, scaffolding and ironwork.

Casting two Brits, Jude Law and Joseph Fiennes, to play Zaitsev and the propagandist he befriends, seems an odd choice. Subtitles and Russian actors would have been more appropriate, but studios couldn’t rely on Russian actors as box office bait. Though the increasingly impressive Jude Law seems too refined for the role of a rural shepherd thrust into heroism, he gives a powerful performance. His quiet patience and innate nobility serve him well in the role of the unassuming hero who sees himself as merely doing his duty. Joseph Fiennes demonstrates intensity and searing intelligence in the role of political officer Danilov, whose expertise as a propagandist matches Zaitsev’s as a marksman.

Ed Harris brings an aristocratic detachment to the role of Major Koenig, the expert marksman sent by the Nazis to dispatch Zaitsev. Harris is equal parts charm and menace. Once his character is introduced, the film becomes a gripping cat-and-mouse game between the two men who wage their own personal war, patiently stalking each other amid the ruins as millions around them are dying. The pivotal scene in which the two men finally meet face-to-face is played with amazing subtlety by both actors. It’s unfortunate that screenwriter Godard felt compelled to bring the film to a cheerier end, which is not only anticlimactic but contrived.

Complicating the script is an extraneous love story that has Danilov and Zaitsev vying for the affections of a brave young woman (Rachel Weisz) who joins the dwindling ranks of the Red Army. Adding a love interest to a war story never hurts, but Weisz feels miscast in the role.

Despite its minor flaws, Enemy at the Gates is a provocative piece of filmmaking about an important chapter of world history. You’ll be rooting for the Soviets, whose defense of Stalingrad was all that stood in the way of a Nazi victory. While highlighting the Soviets’ role in defeating Nazism, Annaud’s film is careful to include plenty of references to Stalin’s own reign of terror.

Bob Hoskins, in an excellent turn, plays General Nikita Kruschev, sent by Stalin to oversee the defense of Stalingrad and ordered to show no mercy to anyone, including Russian civilians trying to flee the city. Ron Perlman’s character serves primarily as reminder that the bloodthirsty Stalin was a tyrant dreaded by his own people. Perlman’s character has no illusions about the promise of universal bliss. His mouth full of metal teeth, he reminds his comrades, “I don’t know much about the sickle, but I do know about the hammer.”

Happily, there’s no letting Stalin off the hook. (Once communism fell, by the way, the Russians hastily changed the name of Stalingrad to Volvograd.) The legendary Vassily Zaitsev, on the other hand, is beyond revisionist history. Like all true heroes, he transcends politics, even if this magnificent film doesn’t. But then, why should it?

Enemy at the Gates (R) HHH 1/2 Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud Starring Jude Law and Joseph Fiennes.