by Brody Rossiter
Much criticism can be levelled at Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 2001 epic wartime drama, Enemy at the Gates. Some may cite historical inaccuracies, while others may linger upon details such as Russian soldiers possessing Cockney accents. While in a perfect world these immersion breaking misgivings would cease to exist, the picture still stands as an atmospheric and thrilling account of fighting a war on the losing side.
Technically, Russia was never truly conquered by the Nazi’s during World War II – largely due to its inconceivably vast and inhospitable geography – and yet the country lost so very much during the conflict; most notably, the lives of 24 million of its countrymen (a devastating 14% of the country’s total population). Conveying the magnitude of this inconceivable figure through intensely personal tales is where Enemy at the Gates proves so starkly effective.
Starring Jude Law as real-life Soviet sniper and wartime hero, Vasily Zaytsev, the picture details the soldier’s sprawling duel with German sniper, Erwin Konig (Ed Harris) and their prolonged battle throughout the besieged city of Stalingrad.
Beginning with a bloody opening sequence in which the true disparity and futility of Russian military practices is cast out upon a devastated city square in a blood-spattered swathe, Enemy at the Gates paints a distinctly hopeless picture. Vasily’s arrival on the banks of the Volga and his heroism under fire – and hidden beneath the dead bodies of his allies – quickly offers a slight reprieve as he dispatches five German officers and infantry with remarkable skill. The young shepherd becomes both a valuable instrument of war and tool of propaganda, offering hope to the Russian war effort – an accolade soon identified and targeted by the Nazis. So ensues a nail-biting battle of attrition between Vasily and the man sent to claim his dog tags.
Not content with drawing battle lines, the picture also presents a sweeping love story between the sniper and Rachel Weisz’ Tania, softening the crumbling edges with romantic and heartfelt passages. With a solid cast including Joseph Fiennes, Ron Perlman and Bob Hoskins, Enemy at the Gates is a highly memorable document of war, and while it may dip a toe into both non-fiction and folklore, it marks it targets and executes a gripping narrative with undeniable passion, ambition and suspense.