Thursday, March 24, 2016

Enemy at the Gates (Paramount/Mandalay-Lions' Gate, 2000)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

A few nights ago Charles and I watched a movie called Enemy at the Gates, which identified as a British movie even though it’s about the World War II Battle of Stalingrad, fought in the title town on the Volga River in Russia that turned the tide on the Eastern Front; its cast is mostly British (except for Ed Harris as the leading German character) but its director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, is French and so was the writer with whom he co-wrote the script, Alain Godard (no information on whether he’s a relation of the legendary — and still living — French director Jean-Luc Godard). Charles picked out this movie hoping it would be a psychological study of war, but when we started watching it there was so much war-porn gore both of us were put off from it, Charles a bit more than I. The biggest problem with Enemy at the Gates is that though it’s billed as a movie about the battle of Stalingrad, we actually get to see almost nothing of the battle — certainly nowhere near enough to tell how well the battle is going for each side. Indeed, if you watch the early scenes — in which Russians are being sent into battle with rifles against a German enemy that has machine guns, and not all the Russian soldiers are even given rifles (they’re told that the man without a rifle will stand behind the man with one and pick it up if the front man gets killed) — it’s going to be totally unbelievable, unless you already know something about the history of World War II, that the Russians eventually won. Instead of showing us the entire battle Enemy at the Gates personalizes it and focuses on just four people: Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law, looking surprisingly pretty for someone who’s supposedly been fighting in a hell-hole of a wrecked city for months); Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a “political officer” with the Soviet army who seizes on Vassili and builds him up as a hero to inspire the other Russian soldiers to keep fighting; and the woman they both love (there had to be a romantic triangle!), Tania (Rachel Weisz), as well as German sniper Major König (Ed Harris), who engages in a cat-and-mouse duel with Vassili which seems to be designed to represent the entire battle.

It’s an interesting movie in some respects but a surprisingly mediocre film in another — it’s well acted and well staged (though, ironically, they built the reproduction of Stalingrad in the “enemy” country, Germany, where the film was shot) but it’s really a pretty generic war movie. Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet remains my favorite among this sub-genre of war film — the kind that focuses on just one or a handful of soldiers and their struggle to survive themselves and knock off some of the enemy if they can — and though you don’t have to have had actual combat experience to make a great war film, Fuller’s knowledge of what happens in combat from having been there and done it informs his war movies even though he admitted to making one compromise. He said that in his war films, when people are shot, they just keel over, fall down and register being dead — in reality he’d seen soldiers get shot by the enemy and they often literally blew up, but neither he nor most other war-film directors ever dare show that. (In Enemy at the Gates the soldiers who are supposed to be killed in battle register that by simply falling over and not moving.) I also noticed that, at least in the early scenes, the actors playing Germans were speaking German but the actors playing Russians were speaking in their normal British-accented English — though later Ed Harris showed up, and while I liked his intensity (in this role he reminded me a great deal of Richard Widmark) he never really convinced me that he was German — I guess I’m still spoiled by The Longest Day, in which the actors playing Germans spoke German, the actors playing French people spoke French, and only the actors playing British or American characters spoke English. (Alas, this led to another problem: the subtitles that were supposed to tell us what the non-English speaking actors were actually saying were frequently white-on-white, and almost totally illegible.)

Enemy at the Gates also intriguingly featured Nikita Khrushchev as an on-screen character — played by Bob Hoskins, whose return to a major role after the disaster of Super Mario Brothers (where he played a part that compromised his reputation in a flop film that didn’t give him the mass-audience career boost he was hoping for) was especially welcome — and gave him a speech in which he attempts to rally the Russian troops by invoking the name of the city where they’re fighting and the head of state it’s named after: “This city... is not Kursk, nor is it Kiev, nor Minsk. This city... is Stalingrad. Stalingrad! This city bears the name of the Boss. It’s more than a city, it’s a symbol. If the Germans... capture this city... the entire country will collapse.” The irony is that in 1961, five years after Khrushchev became leader of the Soviet Union and stunned the Communist Party Congress with a speech denouncing Joseph Stalin as the bloodthirsty, paranoiac tyrant he was, Khrushchev ordered the city renamed “Volgograd” (a reference to its position on the bank of the Volga River) as part of his attempt to rid the Soviet Union of Stalin’s poisonous legacy. Also, lists the date of Enemy at the Gates as 2001 when the copyright notice on the closing credits says “MM” — i.e., 2000 — and according to their contributors the whole business of the Russian army sending men into battle without arms and shooting anyone who tried to desert (leading to some early scenes in which the Russians who are fighting find themselves caught in a cross-fire between the Germans shooting in front of them and the Russians shooting behind them) was more appropriate to the First World War, when some Russian companies were sent into battle with wooden rifles (and of course were sitting ducks for the German solders who had real rifles), while the business of shooting would-be deserters in mid-battle had been tried by the French in 1916 and hadn’t worked for them any better than it does for the Russians here.