Paramount // 2001 // 131 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // September 11th, 2001
A battle between two nations became a conflict between two men.
A personal story of conflict amidst a battle notorious for the scale of its bloody massed battles, Enemy at the Gates strays a bit too far from the strength of its story, but the impressive visuals of desperate, rubble-strewn mêlée are compelling. Brought to disc by Paramount, the technical quality is quite good and the extras are welcome if a bit perfunctory.
Thrown into the inhuman monster that was the Battle of Stalingrad, common soldier Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) not only survives, but also single-handedly kills a number of German soldiers and a German officer with a rifle, saving the life of Political Officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) in the process. Sensing an opportunity for rousing propaganda, Danilov turns Vassili into a heroic soldier of mythical proportions, even as Vassili adds to his legend by methodically killing Germans as a sniper. As the battle for Stalingrad rages, Stalin sends Kruschev (Bob Hoskins) to take charge of the battle. Kruschev helps Danilov promote the heroism of Vassili, but warns that their fates may be linked -- if Vassili fails, so will Danilov.
Matters take a nasty turn when the Germans, furious at the losses from this Russian hero, dispatch their own counter-weapon with the sole aim of killing Vassili. Major Konig (Ed Harris) is a seasoned veteran who was running the German army's sniper school until summoned to Stalingrad. Konig and Vassili begin a very careful duel of wits and skill, using every available resource, knowing that only one of them will survive. Complicating the struggle is a budding romance between Vassili and Tania (Rachel Weisz), a young Russian whose beauty also attracts the eye of Danilov. Needless to say, the situation causes tension between the two men, distracting both from their duty, and increasing the risks. As you might expect, Enemy at the Gates builds to a final, face to face confrontation between the two snipers even as the romantic triangle sorts itself out.
The visual tapestry of Enemy at the Gates is impressive. Appropriate for a battle known for its sheer size and bloody destructiveness, the opening meat-grinder introduction of raw Russian troops into the maelstrom is on par with the harrowing D-Day beach assault that opens Saving Private Ryan. You can get shot by the Germans, or you can get shot by the Soviet political officers enforcing Stalin's blood thirst, or maybe you get a fratricidal shot in the back. Basically, you just get shot.
Once the initial frenzy passes, Enemy at the Gates paints the city of Stalingrad with dust and rubble, punctuated by firefights, bombings, and assorted mayhem in an unremittingly bleak landscape. Say what you will, but Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name of the Rose, Seven Years in Tibet) and cinematographer Robert Fraisse (Seven Years in Tibet, Ronin) know how to set a compelling visual stage for the deadly chess-match to follow.
For Enemy at the Gates, as with its Western front cousin, is a small-scale, human drama set against the larger, impersonal backdrop of World War II. Though based on real events, there is considerable historical doubt as to whether such a sniper duel ever occurred. This does not detract from the film, but I suspect that it will have the effect of bolstering a historical myth, and one likely created by the Soviet disinformation machine, no less!
Three-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris (Apollo 13, The Truman Show, Pollock) inhabits Major Konig's skin, in word, body language, and overall demeanor. Annaud mentions he cast Harris for his icy blue eyes, and I can believe it. Every inch the deadly precise aristocrat, Harris shines brighter than any other star in Enemy at the Gates. A delight of a different sort, Ron Perlman ("Beauty and the Beast," Supreme Sanction) gets an endearing, rough-hewn, metal-mouthed character who appears as a wise sniper-mentor for Vassili. Sadly, he is woefully underused with only a few short minutes of screen time.
Joseph Fiennes (Elizabeth, Shakespeare in Love) makes a reasonably good stab at looking like a bookish ideologue with zero chance of scoring with Rachel Weisz, though he doesn't seem like he has his heart in it. Jude Law (Wilde, Gattaca, The Talented Mr. Ripley) lacks the emotive power and screen presence to fully carry this lead role, and the lovely Rachel Weisz (The Mummy, The Mummy Returns) is simply unconvincing as a Russian clerk/sniper/lover.
The anamorphic video is close to perfect. Aside from some razor-like digital artifacting on a few edges, I can find nothing wrong. A very clean picture with excellent sharpness, I could almost count the fine facial details on the close-ups of man and animal. The overcast sky and combat scenes don't allow for much demonstration of the color richness of DVD, but the explosions and gunfire do provide the occasional lethal color burst.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is a bit underwhelming. Though the full 5.1 setup is used to good effect, the rear surrounds never kick in strongly enough to create a lively, enveloping 360-degree home theater experience that you might expect. Also, some whispers are mixed too softly to be heard without a center channel volume boost. Finally, on a different audio issue, I found the omnipresent vocals and music to be far too intrusive. An effective movie score enhances the natural emotions of a scene, but in Enemy at the Gates the score seemed aimed towards a heavy-handed manipulation of emotion rather than building upon the natural horror of the visuals.
For a Paramount disc, this collection of extra content is surprising. "Through the Crosshairs" (20 minutes) and "Inside Enemy at the Gates" (15 minutes) are more or less the same promotional featurette, with similar clips of the film, interviews with the main cast members and the director, modest behind-the-scenes footage and some production details. As usual, all the comments are pleasant and positive, with never a discouraging word, true to PR form. The nine deleted scenes are more interesting. It is a collection of bits of film trimmed to save a few scant minutes, but there are still some interesting nuggets of acting and others of plot hidden here and there. Though the absence of a director's commentary does not allow us insight into why some scenes were deleted and others spared, the inclusion of both English and French subtitles on these scenes is a thoughtful touch. The final bit of content is the usual theatrical trailer.
Enemy at the Gates can't quite seem to make up its mind. On the one hand, the script plays fair between the Russians and the Germans, with both sides simply presented as a warring army fighting over a city of rubble. Even within the Russian side, the idealistic propaganda and fight against a hated invader is balanced against the murderous reality of how Russians treated their soldiers and civilians. Sadly, such balance between the protagonists is missing. There is simply no contest between the arrogant, icy, aristocratic Major Konig, who ends up committing a gut-wrenching atrocity on a civilian, and the humble, self-doubting, sympathetic Vassili. I would have greater respect for a film that lets me choose, or vacillate between the protagonists, rather than club me over the head and shove me in one direction.
Nor did the love triangle between Vassili, Danilov, and Tania seem genuine, with little doubt as to who was going to win the "prize" between the two men. Quite frankly, this would be an excellent war movie without that filler distraction. Though the sex scene amidst rows of sleeping soldiers is hilarious in its stark reality, a greater emphasis on the cunning battle of wits between the two men and a better sense of the overall struggle for Stalingrad would have been more than adequate as a replacement for the dulled romance angle.
I know it may not mean much to Paramount, but with a movie like Enemy at the Gates that is based on a true story, inclusion of some extra content that details the historical basis (and the attendant controversy) of the film would have been particularly welcome. Maybe next time?
I must also comment on a particular linguistic failing of Enemy at the Gates. If you listen to the accents, you would think that the Germans fought the English on the Eastern Front. Even bad Russian accents would have been better than the glaringly neon English accents of Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, and Rachel Weisz. Bob Hoskins, at least, comes closest to sounding Russian. Did Jean-Jacques Annaud spend all the money on catering rather than voice coaches? Inquiring minds want to know.
A good World War II combat film, covering a part of the war less well known to Western audiences, Enemy at the Gates suffers only from a needless love story and characterizations of the protagonists that may induce head trauma. Anyone who liked Saving Private Ryan or who has an interest in World War II films in general should like Enemy at the Gates. Recommended for rental, and though it's priced a bit high ($30 retail), maybe you can find a good deal if you want to buy.
Neither the film nor the disc are paragons of virtue, but the technical quality and entertainment value are more than sufficient to merit dismissal of all charges. The Court stands in recess.
Review content copyright © 2001 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* "Through the Crosshairs" featurette
* "Inside Enemy at the Gates" featurette
* Deleted Scenes
* Jude Law Interview
* War of the Rats Review