Enemy at the Gates is set during the 1942-43 battle of Stalingrad, a key militarycampaign in which Nazi forces met great resistance from the Russians. In themidst of one particularly massive fight, political officer Danilov (JosephFiennes) witnesses a young country man by the name of Vassili (Jude Law)wiping out a group of German officers with a rifle from a decent distance.Danilov realizes that this sharpshooter could, with the proper amount ofpropaganda, become a national hero and a source of inspiration for a countrydesperately in need of it.
With the approval of the city’s chief defender, Nikita Kruschev (BobHoskins), story after story is cranked out in the media telling the countryof how Vassili seems to be single-handedly wiping out the Nazis inStalingrad. Of course, he really is not, but that doesn’t stop the Germansfrom calling in their version of Vassili, Major Konig (Ed Harris) to put anend to Vassili. There is also a romantic subplot going on as well, asDanilov and Vassili fall in love with Tania (Rachel Weisz), a Russian Jewwho has lost both her parents at the hands of the Nazis, but not herdetermination to fight alongside her fellow countrymen. Who will Taniachoose? Who will win the eventual showdown between Vassili and Konig?
While there is a sense of epic and scopehere, thanks mostly to Wolf Kroeger’s production design, there is no senseof any sort of compelling storytelling. Instead, movie clichs are piled onhigher than the rubble from a destroyed building. Director Jean-JacquesAnnaud, whose last film was the equally melodramatic and dull (SevenYears In Tibet), delivers these clichs with all the subtlety of a Sherman Tank. Take every worn andtired clich from Hollywood Westerns and a thousand other war films, mixthem together with dull battle scenes, standoffs and showdowns devoid of anytension and a love triangle that has as much passion as a cinder block – judging by the looks Danilov and Vassili were exchanging throughout, neither seemed interested in Tania – and you have a loud,muddled mess that richly deserved the critical drubbing it got when itpremiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year.
As for the cast, it really is sad to see a talented group of people likethese get stuck in such a steaming pile of dung like this. Jude Law is avery talented actor with a bright future ahead of him, but this is not a movie for him to look back on with fond memories. Helooks lost throughout the entire film. Joseph Fiennes looks like he’s insome sort of pain. Weisz looks great (it’s nice to know that in the middleof a city that has been levelled by war, you can still get make-up at amoment’s notice), but brings nothing to her character that we haven’t seensomewhere else before; while Hoskins chews up the screen and growls a lot asKruschev, leaving Ed Harris to look like a zombie. Perhaps Harris was concentrating onfinishing Pollock, his vastly superior directing debut. The fact that noneof them even attempt an accent other than English or American only makes matters worse. At one point, the film was a convincing London.
Production design aside, the film is a mediocre success at best, the worstaspect being James Horner’s music score. This time around, he rips off his 1982 score for Star Trek IIand mixes it with the beginning of John Williams’ theme for Schindler’sList.
An overblown epic that has as much impact on the viewer as a half-filledwater balloon, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Enemy At The Gates is a long, boringversion of a story that easily could have been an exciting cinematic one. Acluttered mess from start to finish, this is a movie that wants to be acinematic experience along the lines of Saving Private Ryan. Instead, itturns out to be even less involving as an episode of Hogan’s Heroes.
If the topic of this film held promise for you, then I have two suggestions:try to track down Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1993 war film Stalingrad or better yet,read the book by William Craig that this film was based on.