Harris Takes on the Law
"Enemy at the Gates" takes its lead from the history books with a story which revolves around The Battle for Stalingrad between the Germans and Russians during WWII. But it is not really about the battle as a whole but a duel between two snipers, Russian Vassili Zaitsev and German Major König both of whom were real people and according to Zaitsev's own memoirs did have a duel which lasted 3 days during The Battle for Stalingrad. Now whilst grounded in the history books I would say that "Enemy at the Gates" is more of a fictionalised account of their battle embellished by a romantic sub plot to add another angle to this story. But whether real of fictional this battle of snipers is interesting, action packed and entertaining in fact whilst "Enemy at the Gates" concentrates on this battle it is first rate not so much ruined but weakened by other sub plots.
With the pressure mounting from the German army as they try to capture Stalingrad, Russian Commisar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes - Stealing Beauty) attempts to boost the moral of the Russian army by highlighting the talents of Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law - Love, Honour and Obey) a young Russian soldier who is a crack shot with a rifle. It begins to work as the Russians resiliently defend Stalingrad leading the Germans to bring in their own top sniper Major König (Ed Harris - Stepmom) to try and kill Zaitsev. As battle goes on around them Zaitsev and König attempt to outsmart each other, drawing each other into a trap and into the sights on their rifles.
So the main storyline to "Enemy at the Gates" is the battle of the snipers as it focuses on the character of Vassili Zaitsev, a Russian shepherd who from a young age was trained to shoot by his grandfather. We watch as he becomes the pin up of the Russian army as Commisar Danilov writes stories of his kills to encourage the other soldiers and give them hope. And it is because Zaitsev is seen by the Germans as a major reason why the Russians won't give up that they bring in their top sniper Major König to take him out. Whether this is based on fact or fiction it is a cleverly constructed build up to the battle of the snipers and it is embellished by the Russians trying to feed Major König false information in order to set him up.
This of course leads to a series of battles as Zaitsev and König try to outsmart each other, laying in wait for their rival to make a mistake. And whilst the actual action isn't that gruesome the actual whole impression has this disturbing nature as we watch them take up position which at times was in a pile of dead bodes. This is in fact very cleverly done because whilst there is the excitement and tension of their battles you also get to see what lengths they will go to to get their man. And this side of the story the battle between snipers culminates quite brilliantly is a visually powerful scene.
But here is the thing, when director Jean-Jacques Annaud is focussing on the sniper battle "Enemy at the Gates" works but when he focuses on the sub plots it all becomes a little dull. It doesn't help that there is a romantic subplot thrown in which sees Zaitsev falling for Tania Chernova and this causes bitterness and jealousy between Zaitsev and Commisar Danilov who has also fallen for Tania. In a way I can see the purpose of this, it tries to deliver a sense of ambiguous tension as to whether Danilov will betray Zaitsev and set him up but it ends up being a very cliche romantic storyline. And on top of this attempts to make it romantic end up making it cheesy especially a scene which sees Zaitsev and Tania getting very intimate in a room full of sleeping Russians.
But despite this romantic subplot all the performances are pretty good from Rachel Weisz as Tania Chernova through to Joseph Fiennes as Commisar Danilov, although to be honest "Enemy at the Gates" belongs to Jude Law and Ed Harris who play the snipers. Ignoring the fact that no one goes for an authentic accent and so Jude Law's London tones sound strange coming from a Russian, Law actually is surprisingly good as Vassili Zaitsev. And the reason is that he plays the character with restraint, a humbleness befitting the character and it makes him believable, a real person who just happens to have a talent for shooting. And to be honest Ed Harris does as good a job with Major König, making him the more hardened, ruthless killer but someone who still feels real.
What this all boils down to is that "Enemy at the Gates" is both a surprisingly entertaining but also interesting movie. It's at its best when it focuses on the duel between Zaitsev and König delivering wonderful tension matched by some brilliant action. But sadly it is pulled down by the subplots in particular the romantic subplot which ends up becoming surprisingly cheesy and misplaced.