The most expensive European film to date, "Enemy at the Gates" (IMDb listing) accomplishes so much with a story that contains very little. Leaping over the patriotism that sinks American war films, "Gates" shows us the rare global side to World War II, a war that overwhelmed the world, not just the United States as "Saving Private Ryan" and others of the genre would have you believe. Frosty, muddy, and nail-biting to the very last scene, "Gates" deserves a place as one of the most visually majestic and fascinatingly intimate war stories committed to the big screen in decades.
A simple farm boy from the mountains in Russia, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) has been sent to Stalingrad to fight the Nazis as they make a last stand to take over the city. It is there in the ruins of the city that he meets Officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). Discovering a sniper aptitude in Vassili, Danilov finds the hero his country has been looking for, and also the propaganda icon his superiors crave. Danilov soon turns Vassili into a superstar of the Russian army, and under the thumb of Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins), Danilov learns that his fate is directly tied to Vassili's. They both fall in love with a female solider named Tania (Rachel Weisz) as she fights alongside Vassili to avenge the death of her parents. Soon, the Nazis send their best marksmen, Major Konig (Ed Harris), to annihilate Vassili in the name of honor for the fatherland. What Konig doesn't expect is that Vassili is a rough, but equally gifted sniper, who isn't the easy prey the Major was expecting.
A visual director of the highest order, Jean-Jacques Annaud ("Seven Years in Tibet," "The Bear") puts away his usual color palette and scours his "Enemy at the Gates" with grays and blacks. Teaming with production designer Wolf Kroeger and cinematographer Robert Fraisse, Annaud takes his $90 million budget and makes every penny count. The details in "Gates" are amazing. The usually faceless, bombed out cities of WWII movies have been turned into a maze of sniper perches and hiding spots. Vividly recreating the battle for Stalingrad, Annaud makes his war movie exceptionally three-dimensional. What the cast does with the material is remarkable, but what Annaud and his crew gives them to play in is downright brilliant.
In what will surely be a controversial move, Annaud lets his cast speak in their native accents. Featuring a cast mixing American and British actors executing the story of Russians and Germans, the very idea of an English accent for a Russian character is disarming to say the least. Though I don't have much of an objection to this experiment, I did find it confusing at times just who was on what side. The expected comfort of a thick Russian or German cadence is missing, maybe for the best. It gives the actors confidence to humanize their characters without fear of conquering an accent that lies beyond their means.
What makes "Gates" stand out in a very crowded field is the unexpected love triangle between Law, Fiennes, and Weisz. The subplot seemingly comes from nowhere and I expected this development to burden the film with superfluous melodrama. I was wrong. Heartbreaking and unquestionably believable, the three actors find their best moments when the guns are put away and the focus is placed on matters of the human heart (even a conceptually bizarre love scene is stirring). While Fiennes and Law do their chiseled-jaw best to seem both vulnerable and steely at the same time, Rachel Weisz propels the soul of the picture in a performance that could not be carried off by another actress. Weisz delivers an honest realization rich with heartbreak and emotion. With all the boys and their guns blasting away, it's Weisz that holds the picture together.
A story not only of battle and death, but of honor and manipulation, "Enemy at the Gates" sidesteps the dangerous trappings of WWII films and achieves an elusive epic tone. Surely, the very plot about snipers at war is fine fodder for tense filmmaking, but director Annaud makes the other moments count equally. The propaganda run by the Russians to promote morale in the army, yet setting up Vassili for success where he might not achieve it, is as important to the plot as the introductory fifteen-minute battle extravaganza in which we see the Russians killing their own soldiers who are too scared to go on.
We are used to the battle scenes. "Saving Private Ryan" numbed us to the violence as well. "Enemy at the Gates" is crafty enough to open with the customary full-out war landscape, then slow down to the eventual cat and mouse game run by Konig and Vassili. It's a nice concoction of sweeping war scenes, personal defeat, unrequited love, and honor at the expense of taking life. It might not strike a chord with Americans like "Ryan" did, but this story of the battle for Stalingrad is ripe with many different colors of drama that "Ryan" didn't have. "Enemy at the Gates" is a true knockout.
Filmfodder Grade: A