The Battle of Stalingrad, in which the German army besieged the vital Russian river port city lasted from August, 1942 to February 1943. It is widely regarded as the single longest and bloodiest battle in the history of not just WWII, but all warfare. The battle took an enormous casualty count. The Germans lost 850,000 (killed, wounded or captured) while the Russians suffered over one million killed, wounded or missing. The fighting was incredibly fierce with most of it taking place within the city of Stalingrad itself. Almost every able bodied young Russian man was pressed into military service along with some Russian women. Russian soldiers, only half of them armed, were commanded to charge German lines under deadly fire. If any Russians retreated, they were shot by their own men. Commanding officers who led these failed charges were shot, either by firing squad or their own hand. It was literally hell on earth. But as costly as the fight was for both sides, the Russians eventually won, a victory which turned the tide of the war in Europe.
That's a pretty large canvas on which to paint a major motion picture. Writer/director Jean-Jacques does a good job of narrowing the focus of the battle down to a mere handful of people in ENEMY AT THE GATES (2001), a very good war film that I watched for the first time the other day. It's always a treat to see a WWII film that focuses on some other aspect of the war rather than Americans or British against the Germans or Japanese. Other films in this category include Sam Peckinpah's CROSS OF IRON (1977) , Wolfgang Petersen's masterpiece DAS BOOT (1981) and Clint Eastwood's LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (2006).
Vasily Zaytsev (Jude Law), is one of those young Russian men thrown into the maelstrom of Stalingrad. He's an expert marksman and distinguishes himself as a sniper by killing several German officers on his first day in combat. This feat is witnessed by Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a propaganda officer who recognizes the value in promoting Vasily as a bonafide Russian hero.
Under the command of Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins), Vasily begins toting up an impressive number of kills, all of which are publicized by Danilov. The German high command wants none of this. They send in Major Erwin Konig (Ed Harris), their own master sniper, to take out Vasily.
Thus begins a tense game of cat and mouse enacted amid the total devastation of Stalingrad. There's a woman (of course), a plucky Russian named Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz), whom both Danilov and Vasily are in love with. Tania only has eyes for Vasily though as does young Sasha (Gabriel Thomson), a resourceful Russian boy who appears to sell out to the Germans only to be revealed as a double agent.
Annaud begins his film much like Steven Spielberg did SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), by throwing both characters and audience immediately into the swirling chaos of combat. The cinematography by Robert Fraisse paints everything in somber shades of gray. There's very little sunlight in this film, even in scenes set in daytime. The action scenes are well staged and the effects (both practical and CGI) are used to good effect. James Horner's score is good but I swear I heard echoes of his work on STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982) in the short trumpet trill heard throughout the movie.
Of course all of the actors speak English rather than Russian or German. Some of them even speak English with a British accent. That's a minor quibble but I always like it when other languages are spoken in WWII films and subtitles are utilized. ENEMY AT THE GATES is a sobering look at the price of heroism during a time when an entire city had no choice but to stand up and fight or be totally destroyed. Highly recommended.