The Holocaust Historiography Project

Film review

D for History, A for Entertainment

  • Enemy at the Gates. (2001) Genre: film (war, drama). Length: 131 minutes. MPAA rating: R. Starring: Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Ed Harris, Rachel Weisz, Ron Perlman, Gabriel Marshall-Thomson, Matthias Habich. Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud. Producers: Jean-Jacques Annaud, John D. Schofield. Released by: Paramount. Grade: B+.

Scott L. Smith

The success in 1998 of Steven Spielberg’s smarmy Saving Private Ryan has inspired a reawakening of interest in epic movies of the Second World War. The latest of these, Enemy at the Gates, set in the cataclysmic siege of Stalingrad, is long on drama, short on historical accuracy.

As historical epic to rank with Lawrence of Arabia, or even Doctor Zhivago, Enemy at the Gates fails miserably. Nevertheless, it offers a compelling plot that features a duel between master snipers, and a romantic triangle among the Soviets.

The deadly contest in marksmanship takes place between a character based on a real-life Hero of the Soviet Union, Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law), a sniper credited with hundreds of kills, and a fictitious German sniping expert, Major König (expertly played by Ed Harris). Meanwhile, Zaitsev and his handler, a Jewish commissar and propagandist, Comrade Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), vie for the beautiful Jewish soldier Tanya.

The love-interest does serve to divert the viewer from much of the movie’s historical and tactical absurdity. For example, we learn in a cameo that General von Paulus (Matthias Habich), has placed his Sixth Army’s entire hopes on Major König’s skill in bringing down the Soviet propaganda icon, sharpshooter Zaitsev — and thus winning the pivotal battle of the war with a single well-placed bullet.

Ron Perlman briefly plays the captivating Kulikov, a German-trained sniper who mentors Zaitsev. “Don’t have any illusions,” the older man tells his study, baring wide the virtues of Soviet dentistry. But the major theme is the relentless duel between the ruthlessly efficient Major König and Comrade Zaitsev: two eyes peering behind two telescopic sights, one of Prussian blue and one of Russian Red.

This would never happen in real life. When a sniper fires he must extricate himself immediately: shock troops are on the way. In this film the protagonists act as amateur detectives in a dead metropolis, stalking each other underneath burlap camouflage. Where are the picket lines? Why is it that every German general likes to take a bath in grenade-range of still-steaming Russian corpses?

The weaponry is accurate, but one would really have expected much more from Berlin’s Babelsberg studios, once home to Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang.

In a rip-off of Saving Private Ryan, the Soviets cross the Volga in barges bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe — exciting, but not the same as the first few minutes of Ryan, where one could almost feel the MG-42 rounds ripping into the landing craft. Despite the cockney casting of the comrades — Bob Hoskins makes a particularly awful scene as Khrushchev, resembling a cross between Noriega and Boris Badenov — deep down we know that these are Russians. The Red Army throws them into the breach without weapons — political commissars standing by to shoot wafflers in the back. It’s the legendary Russian way to win a war, where we forget that it was the Germans who were ultimately surrounded, but fought on!

A gripping though impossible drama, the love triangle is awkwardly played out with the required happy ending. Comrade Danilov does the right thing, instead of sending Vassily to the gulag over the affections of Tanya. You may even be able to trick your wife or girlfriend into seeing it with you. Tanya’s “I knew you weren’t dead.” [Why?] “Because we've just met!” is no more mawkish than Casablanca’s “We'll always have Paris.”

Once you forget that the outcome of the war in Europe is supposed to hinge on the plot, you may well enjoy this movie. The Germans have more Panzers and Stukas at first, but the tormented virtuoso with a Mauser rifle, Major König, is no Vassily Zaitsev. König, who stereotypically closes the drapes, unable to bear seeing wounded German soldiers in the train next to him, can certainly make an example of a double-dealing Dickensian street urchin named Sasha (Gabriel Marshall-Thomson), implausibly acting as spy for both snipers. What will become of the young Sasha? What will become of the complex Major König?

The price of admission is worth finding out. Just don’t expect a history lesson. But if you've ever wondered how to make love in a cold bunker full of sleepy muzhiks, you will find out from Enemy at the Gates.

About the author

Scott Smith holds a B.A. in history from Idaho State University. He served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and has worked as a radio-television engineer.

Bibliographic information
Author: Scott L. Smith
Title: D for History, A for Entertainment
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: March/April 2001
Issue: Volume 20 number 2
Location: page 45
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: “Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.