Enemy at the Gates
Law and Harris Bring Suspense to the ScreenBy Pey-Hua Hwang
Enemy at the Gates reduces the epic struggle between Russia and Germany for Stalingrad in World War II to the sniping duel between Russian sharp-shooter Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) and German marksman Major Konig (Ed Harris).
In the intervals between the intense battle scenes and the tension between Zaitsev and Konig as they simultaneously play the roles of hunter and hunted, various subplots, including a love triangle and a window into the psychology of war, are woven into the film.
This tale of two snipers succeeds in being more than just a display of fancy pyrotechnics. The opening scenes do dazzle the eye with Jean-Jacques Annaud’s (Seven Years in Tibet) depiction of Russian troops crossing the Volga River into Stalingrad and being forced to attack facing German fire upon advancing -- and Soviet fire for retreating.
The massive canvas then zooms in on Vassili as he, by many strokes of luck, avoids being shot, meets a Russian propaganda commissar named Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), and quickly picks off a round of German officers with his sharpshooting skills. So later, when Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins), with proper bluster and belligerence, asks how the officers are going to give their men “balls,” Danilov responds, “give them hope, what we need are heroes.” Danilov then capitalizes on Vassili’s sniping and, with the power of the media, turns him in to just such a hero.
As Vassili’s officer count increases, however, the Germans send their best marksman, Major Konig, after him. Thus begins a well-choreographed dance between two professional killers whose matching blue eyes never meet except through the scopes of their rifles. The suspense is heightened by James Horner’s score, and the encounters between Konig and Zaitsev are the highlights of the movie.
The requisite love interest in this movie is played by Rachel Wiesz (The Mummy) as Tania, another sniper who catches the eye and the hearts of both Danilov and Zaitsev, but inevitably falls for Zaitsev. This love triangle is not completely realistic, but allows Danilov to become a martyr. The romantic subplot also enables some comments about the brutality of life during war to be made. Tania tells the gruesome story of how her parents were killed by soldiers, and in a separate conversation, Zaitsev comments to Tania that surviving each day is almost like a celebration.
The casting of characters is well done, for although it seems strange that Germans and Russians have suddenly acquired American and English accents, the emotions and message intended are conveyed with gravity and clarity. Law does well expanding his repertoire from the playboy roles he held the the past (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Gattica). He endows his character with the bottled emotions of a soldier with the weight of the morale of all of Russia on his shoulders, finding release only in the shot of his rifle or the arms of Tania. Harris also reflects conflicting emotions well as he grieves for his son and yet kills another’s son, Sacha (worshipper of Vassili and voluntary double agent played with wide eyed innocence by Gabriel Marchall-Thomson) in cold blood. Fiennes’s performance is more disappointing, but given the sheltered existence of his character, fighting a war only with words and not bullets, his lack of depth is understandable. Rob Perlman is also able to steal a scene or two as the cynical sniper Koulikov sent to help out Zaitsev.
This movie is not for those with a strong dislike for graphic violence, or a short attention span (it is 131-minutes long), but for those with an appreciation for attention to detail and the instincts of war, this movie is worth the price of the ticket.