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Both good and disappointing (contains spoilers)
on August 19, 2001
It is so gratifying to finally see a major motion picture made about the WWII Russian Front. After all, it was the Red Army that inflicted 80% of Germany's total casualties in the war, a fact that many Americans remain sadly ignorant of. It is high time we get past Cold War attitudes and pay tribute to the heroism of the Soviet Union in its bitter but ultimately triumphant struggle against Nazism. _Enemy at the Gates_ is a movie of epic proportions, featuring good overall performances by a solid cast as well as a spectacular cinematic recreation of the bombed-out city of Stalingrad.
Still, the movie tends to drag at times, and could have been much better. The love triangle subplot was more of a distraction than anything else, taking up time that could have been better used to tell more of the awesome story of the battle of Stalingrad as a whole. Rather than simply having the German commander state, "These snipers are demoralizing my people," it would have been nice to have actually "seen" a little bit more of how the actions of Zaitsev and the Soviet snipers wore down the vaunted German infantry. Regrettably, the duel between Zaitsev and Koenig seemed to be taking place in a separate reality than the war itself, almost giving the impression that both sides had an unwritten agreement to let the two rivals shoot it out without interference. Also, the abrupt ending gave no explanation as to how the Red Army, seemingly on the ropes throughout the movie, suddenly emerged victorious. It would not have taken much film time to explain how this came about: the tenacity of Stalingrad�s defenders drew the mechanized German forces into costly city fighting, allowing the Red Army�s powerful reserves massed to the north and south to punch through the weak Axis flanks and encircle the Germans. Saving Private Ryan succeeded in telling much of the story of the Normandy invasion in a way that neatly complimented the movie�s plot. I wish that Enemy at the Gates had made more of a similar effort.
I know that �dramatic license� is a fact of life with historical movies, but it is way overdone in this one. The opening sequence of the Volga crossing is powerful filmmaking and is mostly accurate up until Zaitsev and his fellow soldiers enter the city. The following part about only every other man receiving a weapon and being sent of in a suicide charge is purely the stuff of legend, though, more fitting of the WWI Russian Army or a Soviet punishment battalion. The reality was that the Red Army in Stalingrad fought mostly in small detachments armed with submachine guns rather than rifles, moving stealthily amongst the rubble and ambushing the Germans in brutal house-to-house fighting. This sort of close-quarter combat, where the front lines were often separated by less than 20 yards (or even a mere hallway or staircase), would have played out on screen just as well (better, in fact) as the �charge of the Red horde� that is the stuff of popular imagination rather than true history. The conclusion of this scene is misleading, as well. The Soviets did shoot many deserters who attempted to flee the front lines, but this degree of harshness did not apply to survivors of a failed attack as shown in the film. The commanders of the Red Army were often brutal towards their men, but not quite that brutal. As for the way the sniper duel is finally brought to a close, with Koenig walking upright in plain view towards what he suspects is the spot where he has just shot Zaitsev dead, it is just ridiculous. Not even a rookie sniper would have made such a fatal error, much less an instructor.
The Soviet characters all share the names of actual people, but none are true to their real-world counterparts. Vassili Zaitsev was more of a natural leader than the movie gives him credit for, not just a shy boy from the Urals reluctantly pushed into the limelight. Danilov, the political officer, appears to have been crafted by the screenwriters almost solely in order to make a faddish intellectual statement about the pitfalls of Communist idealism. The real Danilov was shot (though not fatally) when he foolishly stood up to point out Major Koenig�s location to Zaitsev, not in an act of suicide. Tania Chernova�s on-screen character was the furthest from reality, though. She was actually a short, temperamental blonde who had previously fought as a partisan in Byelorussia and the Ukraine. A veteran killer by the time she arrived in Stalingrad and possessing a single-minded hatred of the Germans, the real-life Tania could hardly have been more different from the sensitive student/soldier who never actually fires her rifle once throughout the whole film. Also, Chernova was likely Ukrainian, not Jewish (only worth noting because of the widespread myth that most Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis as liberators from Soviet rule). Ironically, the character that seemed truest to reality was Major Koenig, a shadowy figure who some historians claim might never have existed.
Though I used most of the space here to criticize this movie, I guess the fact that I bought the DVD means that I nonetheless enjoyed it. I probably would have rated it better were I not such a Russian history buff. Do yourself a favor and take the time to read both _Enemy at the Gates_, by William Craig (a very readable non-fiction account of the whole Stalingrad campaign) and _War of the Rats_, by David Robbins (a novelized version of the sniper duel that is both a better story and closer to historical fact than this movie was). My main regret is that the film�s potential was largely squandered to make room for unneeded political rhetoric and melodrama. I only hope that its mediocre performance will not discourage film producers from backing other Russian Front projects in the future.