Enemy at the Gates (2001)
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Writer: Jean-Jacques Annaud and Alain Godard
Cinematographer: Robert Fraisse
by Jon Cvack
I only remembered the awkward sex scene from this film, which means I either forgot the rest, or never saw the whole thing. I’m leaning toward the latter because I just don't see this type of action movie anymore. It’s a big story in a big setting with a big score and big emotions. Released in 2001 it might as well have been part of the great era of the 90s action film. People wonder what I mean when I say the films have changed. This film is a perfect example as it hangs right on the precipice between Big Film’s dependence on CGI, and a director’s determination to use practical locations/effects/etc.. I’m sure there were some VFX sprinkles tossed in here, but it all feels incredibly real and true. With ‘only’ a $68 million dollar budget, Enemy at the Gates created an incredibly vivid and realistic environment. It was riding the tailwinds of Saving Private Ryan and the revival of WWII films that came out during the late 90s/early 00s, drifting far more into action territory than the dramatic, functioning as an Aliens to Alien.
I was obsessed with the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty World War II series that were coming out at the time, and after finishing Call of Duty 2, you can see how much the game borrowed from this film. There’s a similar D-Day opening scene as the boats ride into a ruinous Stalingrad, with countless bombers destroying every last piece of the city. We share Vasilli’s (Jude Law) perspective as he attempts to survive an attack that really just seems to be taking every last available Soviet troop and tossing them at the Germans, with no actual hope of victory so much as delaying the inevitable. I haven’t researched much of the Battle of Stalingrad, but I did come across it in Richard Evan’s book Third Reich at War and can say the story is absolutely unimaginable - to the point where if computer graphics actually recreated some of the images they’d seem greatly exaggerated. I recall hundreds of thousands of soldiers, with thousands of tanks and artillery all heading across the battlefield that would eventually claim nearly a million lives. Put in perspective, the US lost 400,000 soldiers total. In Stalingrad, Russia lost 500,000 - in one battle.
However, the story doesn’t focus on the enormity of battle and instead follows the cat and mouse game between two snipers. Director Jean Jacques Annad made the bold decision to have everyone keep their native accents. Jude Law stays British and Ed Harris (as the German sniper) keeps his American accent. I think both actors could’ve pulled off whatever was needed, but it allowed us to believe the characters much quicker, similar to Where Eagles Dare (‘68).
The use of propaganda in order to satiate Russia’s desire to inspire rather than punish the people leads Vasilli to become a hero. It’s here that I wonder if Chris Kyle (of American Sniper) saw this movie and/or read the story. Considering both are based on fact makes me find it hard to believe that Kyle wouldn’t see the parallels between himself and Vasilli. Of course the uses were different, with Kyle seeming to have an obsessive, PTSD-inspired drive to kill as many enemies as possible in order to save his fellow soldiers, while Vasilli was trying to inspire his country to stand up and fight.
The film adopts a very European feel, using wide shots in every which way and performers with extremely animated faces. Bob Hoskins plays the brooding Kruschev, while Ron Pearlman plays a fellow Russian soldier (who adopts a British accent, though I assume this was to keep the British-production uniform, as it was easier to have one American play with a British accent, than have a bunch of British performers put on Russian Accents). Each sniper has their own strategies for luring the others out, centered very much on a young boy who acts as a double spy and meets a tragic end, which I was surprised to see made the cut, especially given the embellished Romance between Vasilli and Tania. For some reason showing a little kid hanged was fine, but allowing Vasilli and Tania’s true story, in which they were estranged after the war (Vasilli married another woman which Tania discovered three years later), was left out.
How this film only has a 54% on Rotten Tomatoes is beyond me. Given today’s endless production of remakes, adaptations, and comic book heroes which get great scores, I imagine if released today it would have performed amazingly. I do agree with many criticisms that the love triangle doesn’t really grab me, but that’s just one of the forgivable conventions that I’m sure the studios demanded. I see critics saying there wasn’t much of a story and just continued to play with a bunch of war movie conventions and tropes. Considering we haven’t had any WWII film even close to this caliber produced in the last eight years or so, I think it was maybe because there were so many war films being made at the time that this just seemed to be an uninspired addition. The fact that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it supports this point. Netflix recommended it to me at a 3.8 or 3.9. I don’t know why I kept thinking it was a bad movie, always putting off watching it. But Netflix is rarely wrong for me anymore and I’m glad I had the faith. I assume I too was bored with the war films or was apprehensive of anything beyond the magnificence of Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line, to ever give it a chance. The story’s are incomparable, of course. History in this case, similar to Changeling, proved the stronger. I love discovering these types of films - from the 90s or early 00s that I’ve never seen, and getting to appreciate them for what they once provided and seems to be missing in theaters nowadays. I watch it enjoying the film, and wishing and patiently waiting for a return to these large and unique stories. Christopher Nolan is wrapping up his own rendition of the big budget WWII film, demanding practical effects and locations. I couldn't be more excited.
BELOW: The opening scene, straight out Medal of Honor or Call of Duty. It ain't Spielberg, but I don't think it's trying to be
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