Friday March 16, 2001
"Enemy at the Gates" lumbers clumsily across the screen like one of its own Nazi tanks. Large and ungainly, this World War II tale of a sniper duel that parallels the bloody battle for Stalingrad has an indisputable visual power, but it's nothing you'd want to have a conversation with--or, for that matter, about.
This kind of radical split between a film's images and its words has become characteristic of the work of the film's director and co-writer (with Alain Godard), Jean-Jacques Annaud. While pictures like "Quest for Fire," "The Bear," "The Lover" and "Seven Years in Tibet" have always been worth looking at, they also bring to mind Dianne Wiest's heartfelt command to John Cusack in Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway": "Don't speak!."
Grandly photographed by Robert Fraisse and a big enough production to have mandated the manufacture of 17,000 uniforms, "Enemy" is so awash in death, bravery and sacrifice it just about screams epic. Old-fashioned enough to talk about "the Nazi jackboot" and have an opening crawl describing Stalingrad as "a city on the Volga where the fate of the world is being decided," it's also sufficiently modern to make adroit use of computer-generated effects in its battle sequences.
That's especially visible in the film's first major set piece, a vast and impressive re-creation of a Stalingrad battle canvas that, like Ridley Scott's opening for "Gladiator," is Annaud's potent tribute to the landmark opening of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan."
But if the Soviet soldiers fighting valiantly to save Stalingrad from the Hun are the essence of big-screen heroism, the film's dialogue and post-battle sensibility are so unavoidably silly that no one chokes on lines of dialogue like "Vodka is a luxury we have, time is not."
"Enemy" concentrates on the exploits of Vassili Zaitsev, played by "The Talented Mr. Ripley's" Jude Law and based on the legends surrounding an actual Hero of the Soviet Union so revered his rifle is on public display in a Russian museum. Though Vassili has the look of a cool and efficient natural born killer, the chronically undersupplied army hasn't provided him with even a rifle when the film opens.
Once he starts shooting, this "young shepherd from the Urals" attracts the attention of political officer-publicist Danilov ("Shakespeare in Love's" Joseph Fiennes), who sees the chance to build up sharpshooting Vassili into a larger-than-life hero, a kind of Soviet Sgt. York impressive enough to inspire the city's defenders.
"Give them hope, pride, a desire to fight," he says to Stalin's representative in Stalingrad, the bombastic Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins), who likes the idea. "This city bears the name of the Boss," he reminds everyone, and he doesn't mean Bruce Springsteen. Should Stalingrad fall, the entire Soviet Union will fall into a depression so deep no amount of Prozac will get it out.
Being the Liberty Valance of Stalingrad, however, is not all vodka and oranges for our Vassili. Exactly like the Beatles in "A Hard Day's Night," he has to take time out from what he does best to personally and laboriously answer his fan mail. And when the fetching Tania (Rachel Weisz) crosses his line of sight (so to speak), he is aghast to discover that his Boswell Vassili has noticed her as well.
Soon enough, however, Vassili has more pressing things to worry about than his first wartime kiss. Apparently Hitler himself has gotten so irked by all those aw-shucks exploits that he's cared enough to send the very best to solve the problem. That would be Major Konig (the unflappable Ed Harris in the film's best performance), a man so important he arrives in his own train and so aristocratic he smokes gold-tipped cigarettes from a silver case.
The major, it turns out, is the best marksman in all of Germany, kind of the Michael Jordan of snipers, and with both Hitler and Stalin demanding a duel to the death, it's not a question of if but when.
Aside from wondering how these two always find each other in the vast rubble-strewn Stalingrad expertly constructed by production designer Wolf Kroeger, "Enemy at the Gates" has little to
occupy us once its battle scenes recede. One of those goofy movies where devil-may-care Russian soldiers unwind by playing the balalaika far into the night, it takes itself far more seriously than anyone else will be able to manage.
Enemy at the Gates, 2001. R, for strong, graphic war violence and some sexuality. Paramount Pictures and Mandalay Pictures present a Reperage production, released by Paramount. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud. Producer John D. Schofield. Executive producers Alain Godard, Alisa Tager. Screenplay Alain Godard & Jean-Jacques Annaud. Cinematographer Robert Fraisse. Editors Noelle Boisson, Humphrey Dixon. Costumes Janty Yates. Music James Horner. Production design Wolf Kroeger. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes. Joseph Fiennes as Danilov. Jude Law as Vassili. Rachel Weisz as Tania. Bob Hoskins as Khrushchev. Ed Harris as Konig. Ron Perlman as Koulikov.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times