Blu-Ray Review: Enemy at the Gates

Jean-Jacques Annaud doesn't do things half-way, as can be seen in the obsessive excesses of his Quest for Fire, The Lover, and even The Bear. His 2001 Enemy at the Gates is an expensive ($70 million) WW2 war picture about Stalingrad, a subject with limited mass appeal -- American audiences seem to require dashing Yankee or Brit heroes in their war movies.

Annaud opens the show with a desperate Russian attempt to retake the besieged city from the Germans. With plenty of manpower but few weapons, the Soviets order waves of recruits, many of them unarmed, against German machine guns. Their own officers warn them that they'll shoot any "cowards" that retreat.

Alive amid hundreds of fallen comrades, infantryman Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) knocks off five Germans with five swift shots, saving the life of propaganda Commisar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). When General Nikita Kruschev (Bob Hoskins, quite convincing) needs a morale-boosting campaign, Danilov promotes Zaitsev to sniper duty and publicizes him as a hero of the Motherland. Zaitsev prowls the crumbling buildings in the still-active battlefield, lying in wait for hours to pick off Nazi officers with his long-range rifle. To be sure of a kill, Vassili always aims for the head. A lot of blood flies in Enemy at the Gates.

German General Paulus (Mathias Habich) responds by importing a deadly sniper ace of his own. The aristocratic Major König (Ed Harris) is also an experienced tactician; he's more than a match for Zaitsev. The Nazi and the peasant stalk one another in the shattered city, engaging in a murderous duel. Commisar Danilov builds his sharpshooter friend into a popular hero and proves to Kruschev that his morale campaign is working. But Danilov's attitude changes when he realizes that Zaitsev is romantic competition for the beautiful Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz), a translator who would rather be fighting at the front. Tania sneaks to the forward positions to spend her nights with Zaitsev, sleeping with him amid hundreds of exhausted fighters.

Enemy at the Gates' avoidance of action-movie glitz should appeal to lovers of quality war movies. Young Vassili manages to survive a crossing of the Volga during a mass attack by German aircraft, a spectacular scene. But most of the film concentrates on intense sniper stand-offs that remind us of nail-biters like Ten Seconds to Hell. Both riflemen are such deadly shots that neither can risk exposing themselves for even a second; the idea is to sucker one's opponent into firing a lame shot that will reveal his position. In one encounter Vassili becomes trapped behind an iron stove, unable to reach his rifle only a couple of yards away. On another day König leaves a telltale trail by tracking yellow dirt from a factory slag heap. It's the little details that count.

The script by Annaud and Alain Godard lets occasional dialogue carry the weight of unseen mass executions and other atrocities. Instead of a history lesson, the film concentrates on what is really a mass suicide mission: Every defender of Stalingrad knows his life isn't worth a plug ruble. Stalin orders that the Germans be turned back, so Kruschev forces his predecessor to commit suicide and threatens to kill any member of his staff who doesn't deliver results. When Commissar Danilov promises to rally the defense with a publicity campaign, he's gambling with his life.

Other war films (The Blue Max), (Flags of Our Fathers) have examined war heroes manufactured for publicity. Vassili Zaitsev is unaware that his friend Danilov has a secret personal agenda. The Commisar arranges for a civilian shoeshine boy, Sacha (Gabriel Marshall-Thompson) to feed König false information, but doesn't tell Zaitsev about it. When Danilov becomes jealous of Tania Chernova's affection for Vassili, we can't tell if the Commisar is trying to help Vassili or send him into a trap.

The acting is quite good. Jude Law and Rachel Weisz are appropriately idealistic in contrast to Joseph Fiennes' more intellectual Commisar. Ed Harris makes his German warrior an utterly ruthless elitist killer. Familiar face Ron Perlman shows up as Zaitsev's backup shooter, a man with a mouthful of replacement metal teeth. Perlman makes a fine impression despite being dubbed. Although the "sniper duel" is probably a historical exaggeration, we're told that most of the main characters are based on real-life Soviet combatants. A female Russian sniper racked up even more kills than did Zaitsev. His rifle is apparently now part of a Stalingrad exhibition.

Paramount's Blu-ray of Enemy at the Gates gives us Jean-Jacques Annaud's gritty battle film in a striking HD presentation. The art directors go for a clammy range of blues and grays punctuated by bursts of colored smoke from bomb hits -- black, dark green. Annaud's art directors and effects artists sketch a convincing urban battlefield, wisely avoiding show-off angles and camera moves -- the film has no CGI slow-mo bullets or impossible corkscrew trucking shots.

The disc's best extra is a selection of interesting deleted scenes. The featurettes Through the Crosshairs and Inside Enemy at the Gates are publicity-oriented interview bites illustrated almost exclusively with redundant clips from the movie. The only HD extra is the original trailer.

The Russians and the Germans mostly speak English, an affectation that doesn't become a handicap. Curiously, Enemy at the Gates reminds us of an entire genre of Russian films mostly unseen in the West. Throughout the Cold War the Soviets produced at least one or two massive "war glory" epics each year to commemorate the valor and sacrifice of the millions that died defending the Motherland. Many were filmed in 65mm and used vast Russian Army resources. Few if any of these films have been exported to the United States.

Glenn Erickson

reviews online at DVD Savant

May 14, 2009

Enemy at the Gates is available now from Paramount Pictures.