Enemy at the Gates
starring Joseph Fiennes, Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Bob Hoskins and Ed Harris
written by Alain Godard and Jean-Jacques Annaud
directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
Despite what Hollywood movies and your school history teachers might have told you the fact is that it was the Russians who won the Second World War, not the Western Allies Britain and America. They did it by defeating the Nazis in the battle of Stalingradin the Fall of 1942 and early Winter 1943. It was a pivotal 180-day siege. If the Germans had won, then Russia almost certainly would have collapsed and Hitler would have won the war. The Russians defended Stalingrad like doped up fiends and held onto it, serving the Germans a defeat they never recovered from. After Stalingradthe war was a long, slow falling back - the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, East Prussia, and then the Fatherland itself. The Russians could have own without the Allied actions in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and, eventually, the Normandy Invasion. It just would have taken a bit longer.
There have been a lot of excellent and gruesome World War Two films in the last few years. Steven Spielberg’s black-and-white Schindler’s List with Liam Neeson and Saving Private Ryan (another Spielberg film) with Tom Hanks are perhaps the best, and the best known. Over the years there have been others, full-fledged Hollywood movies as well as a variety of dramatic television mini-series of excellent quality, usually portraying the war effort of the West: Tora, Tora, Tora, In Harm’s Way, The Thin Red Line, The Big Red One, A Bridge Too Far, The Longest Day, Judgment at Nuremberg, Memphis Belle and The Diary of Anne Frank. And more besides. Most recently we have Pearl Harbor with Ben Affleck.
We always hear that war is hell, and some recent movies have been so realistic that one might begin to really feel it. First of all, Enemy at the Gates is bloody. It is about the Russian campaign against the Germans in the city of Stalingrad (a city named after Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, so there was a lot of prestige on the line if the city fell to the enemy). It is the true story of Russian sniper Vasily Zaitsev and there are many shots of soldiers being shot in the head, seen through a sniper’s telescopic scope. The conditions were horrible and cruel becuase the city was in ruins and rubble all around the fighting soldiers who were mingling with the starving civilian population that was still trapped there. (The civilians needed permits to board boats to cross the VolgaRiver and escape the city. Permits were difficult to obtain in the chaos.)
Second, the futility and evil of the way the war was prosecuted is self-evident. The opening scenes are horrific: untrained recruits arrive on the east bank of the Volga. They cross the river under fire from German howitzers and Stuka dive bombers. They arrive in the city on the west bank, but they have no weapons. There are so few weapons that only every other soldier is handed a rifle. Those without rifles have extra bullets roughly stuffed into their frightened fists with no explanation (hopefully they were of the proper caliber) and issued shouted instructions in the midst of the chaos, fear and stink, “The one with the rifle shoots. The one without follows him. When the one with the rifle gets killed the one who is following picks up the rifle and shoots!” I bet this is an accurate description of a Russian soldier’s on-the-spot training in the war they call The Great Patriotic War. The absolute disregard for humanity, for reason, for preparation and planned action is intolerable! How could the Russians have won the battle after all? It must have been by sheer force of numbers, aided by the unexpectedly cold winter.
The worst insult is the practice of gunning down their own troops who fell back in the face of superior German tactics and fire power. It was apolitical decision to punish“cowardice.” It reminds me that Stalin himself weakened his own military through “purges” of thousands of professional military officers during the 1930s. By the time the war arrived the leadership and planning ability of the Red Army was already significantly undermined.
This is a combined British-French movie, written and directed by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud. And there are excellent performances: Bob Hoskins plays Nikita Khrushchev - later the Premier of the Communist Party when John F. Kennedy was U.S. President - who was the chief Communist Party overseer ofStalingrad at the time. Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) is a local political officer who discovers Zaitsev’s (Jude Law) sniper ability and promotes him as a hero of the Red Army. (For morale purposes the Red Army was desperate for a hero.) Ed Harris, a German Major and sniper expert, is sent in specifically to hunt down Zaitev. He fails, but it is very dramatic. Rachel Weisz (The Mummy) seems to have been thrown in as a love interest, but her presence reminds us of the role women soldiers played in the Red Army when it was short of manpower.
In a closing note at the end of the film we are told that Vasily Zaitsev’s sniper rifle can still be seen today in a war museum in the former Stalingrad, now re-named Volgograd. I found it a kind of jolting reminder that the obscenities I had just seen on video are based on real people and events. My God!
You should see this movie. The Second World War has been over and done with for almost 56 years now and I have to wonder - I am sure that many others have also wondered - how much longer it can be told and revisited in our entertainment. Our culture’s constant revisiting of that conflict probably says a lot about us psychologically. I wonder what?