“Enemy at the Gates” is one of those rare World War II movies that do not involve Americans in any way. While the story concentrates on the battle between the Germans and the Russians, the real focus is the struggle between two men. The film is a captivating departure from the typical war movie, but it falls just short of brilliance.
The film opens in the autumn of 1942 during Hitler”s attack on Stalingrad. The Nazis appear to have superior weapons, supplies and morale, and it appears that they will soon defeat the Russians and take control of the ruined city. The film opens with a massive but frantic charge by the Russian soldiers. They appear to be running away from something rather than toward it, and we soon find this to be true, for after half of the men are killed, the other half find their retreat from the battle met with a hail of Gatling gun fire from their own officers and cries of “No mercy for cowards!”
One Russian named Vassili (Jude Law), while playing possum among some of his dead comrades, takes the opportunity to kill five Germans, and his actions are noticed by political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). It is apparent from his actions and from a flashback of his rifle training from his childhood in the Ural Mountains that Vassili is a phenomenal marksman, and Danilov sees a way to raise the crumbling morale of the soldiers. Desperate for a hero, Danilov writes a slightly inflated version of Vassili”s brave actions, and with the approval of Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins), he makes Vassili into a national champion that all soldiers and other workers can emulate.
Vassili is immediately transferred to the sniper division, where he kills scores of Nazi officers and soldiers. With all of his deeds being exaggerated and his picture being slapped on every newspaper in the country, he is an instant legend. Needless to say, the Nazis are not pleased with these developments, and they remedy the situation by sending for a German sharpshooter named Konig (Ed Harris), whose mission is simply to hunt and kill Vassili. The cat and mouse game begins, but it is not always clear who is the hunted one. Although various other snipers aid Vassili including Ron Perlman (who is one of the most intriguing characters in the film), he is basically alone in his fight with Konig.
The scenes between Vassili and Konig are the most riveting of the film. The background of their near-encounters is breathtaking and horrifying. Their skirmishes, during which they patiently wait for the time to strike, take place in the burned out shells of factories and the partially destroyed and almost post-apocalyptic ruins of train yards and blackened buildings. The sounds of mortar shells exploding and gunfire seldom cease, and the two sharpshooters must crawl through tunnels and jump from buildings to try to get the advantage while battles rage around them.
The film is unique in its treatment of war, because it is sometimes more like a western than a typical WWII movie. At times, especially during the preparation for the reckoning between the two snipers, it is more reminiscent of “High Noon” than “Saving Private Ryan.”
Harris does an excellent job of giving Konig a creepy, calm demeanor that reinforces his role as the hunter, and he also sidesteps the classic blunder that so many American actors perpetrate as he does not use a British sounding, all purpose European accent.
“Enemy at the Gates” has some problems with pace and the movement of the plot. Near the beginning it sometimes feels as if the writer didn”t know exactly how to introduce certain aspects of the plot, so he just jumped right in. The romance between Vassili and fellow solider Tania (Rachel Weisz) is somewhat extraneous and seems to be thrown in just to give the film some more depth.
Although the film is chock full of premium sniper scenes and some amazing cinematography (like the aerial shots of the battle from the point of view of German planes), it lacks something. It”s not that there is any aspect of the film that is particularly bad it just lacks that spark that separates the good movies from the great movies.