Enemy at the Gates

All is fair in love and war, but it’s the romance that really screws up things. Take the new World War II film “Enemy at the Gates.” Here’s a really gripping drama about two professional snipers that gets shot down by a meaningless love story.

enemy at the gatesEpic in scope, “Enemy at the Gates” is at its best when it sets its sites on the hunt between Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) and his German equal Major Konig ( Ed Harris). Both men are the best at what they do, and their cat-and-mouse game set amidst the ruins of Stalingrad is intense and riveting.

At least when it’s not being interrupted by the superfluous love story between Vassili and fellow soldier Tania (Rachel Weisz), who has also attracted the attention of Russian political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). Their love triangle is dead weight, a misguided attempt to bring some humanity to a horrific situation.

Director/co-writer Jane-Jacques Annaud and co-writer Alain Godard totally miss the point. War is supposed to be hell. It doesn’t have convenient breaks where characters can engage in affairs of the heart. Yet the writers feel the necessity to water down the real story with this annoying subplot that brings nothing to the party.

“Enemy at the Gates” feels long. Trimming the love story would have made it as tight as it is taut. The war story is harrowing, filling the screen with graphic images. It’s here where the cast excel. Law shines as the country boy from the Urals, whose talent behind the trigger turns him into an unwitting hero. Law crawls so deep into the character we forget we’re watching a performance.

Fiennes, looking appropriately haggard, is good as Danilov, who discovers Vassili and uses him to rally the troops. Danilov’s campaign works too well, forcing the Germans to recruit their own sniper to stop him. That’s a great story, one based on fact, and as long as “Enemy of the Gates” is about these two men, it’s mesmerizing. You can’t take your eyes off the screen and the actors.

Ed Harris is powerful as Konig, an aristocrat who arrives in the middle of hell riding in a private railroad car, smoking gold-tipped cigarettes, never ashamed of his status. Konig knows he’s the best, and never shows fear on or off the battlefield. Harris is cool and calculated. He makes us believe that this man is capable of the actions he commits. His relationship with a local Russian boy, whom he uses to obtain information, is chilling.

As Tania, the soldier who steals Vassili’s heart, Rachel Weisz is fine, but her character is nothing more than a plot device. She’s convenient. Maybe the filmmakers were afraid to alienate the date crowd. They toss in a sex scene between Weisz and Law, and although quite erotic, it’s totally out of place. The only intimacy in “Enemy of the Gates” should be between the two snipers.

Their relationship is much more interesting. They respect each other. They share the same goals, even if they work for rival teams. Both know that one wrong move and the game is over.

Director Annaud is at his best on the battle front,. The war scenes are both nightmarish and dreamy. The first fifteen minutes, where Vassili and others arrive across the harbor from Stalingrad, are filled with shocking war violence that is tough to sit through. It’s supposed to be. Instead of immediately showing us the carnage, Annaud does something brilliant. He shows us the faces of the men who have just arrived. The horror in their faces says it all.

Then Annaud and cinematographer Robert Fraisse turn the camera around so we can see what they see. Total destruction. Chaos. Death. Stalingrad on fire, a harbor filled with debris and bodies. The scope is amazing. You feel like you’re in the middle of a maelstrom. The scenes in the middle of Stalingrad, where much of the action takes place, are haunting.

Production designer Wolf Kroger has created a maze of bombed out buildings and underground bunkers that look so authentic you can smell the rot and decay. Editor Noelle Boisson and Humphrey Dixon blend everything together into a potent mix.

In his previous films, Annaud has proven himself to be a master of visual imagery. He paints on a large canvas, and every brush stroke is filled with intense emotion. With a little trimming, “Enemy at the Gates” could be a masterpiece.


Riveting war drama should shed the romance


Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Ed Harris, Rachel Weisz, Bob Hoskins, Ron Perlman, Gabriel Marshall-Thomson. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Rated R.


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