BERLIN 2001 REVIEW: Crouching Russian, Hidden Nazi; Annaud's "Enemy" Breaks Open Berlin's Gates
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/02.09.01) — It’s easy to see why Jean-Jacques Annaud wanted to direct the latest in a current wave of World War II movies: Snow.
“Enemy at the Gates” is filled with snow. It’s a lovely manifestation of nature — clean and pure — that becomes corrupted in dirtied, blood-strewn ways. Though in barest form, the film’s plot is Russian sniper vs. German sniper during the gruesome battle of Stalingrad, Annuad, as usual, filters the narrative through his running theme of juxtaposing the beauty and cruelty of nature vs. the beauty and cruelty of human nature.
Except for that all-too human frailty known as Hollywood plotting that rears its ugly and corrupted head near the end, along with the usual Annuad slow spots, “Enemy at the Gates” is a rich, sumptuous big-budget production that will awe, but won’t pack a wallop. But then, it doesn’t want to.
The story is based on the true story of Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), a rural Ural and deadly accurate sniper who became a Russian urban legend thanks to a propaganda campaign by his political officer (Joseph Fiennes), and then became a target of the Nazi’s best sharpshooter (Ed Harris).
As with all post-“Saving Private Ryan” war movies (including “Gladiator“), “Enemy at the Gates” begins with a rousing battle sequence as a battered wave of Russians drive against the entrenched Nazis in a futile attempt to plunge through their line. When a few of the Russians retreat, they are shot on the orders of their own commanders.
Only Vassili and Danilov (Fiennes) survive by hiding among dead bodies. When about half a dozen Nazis let down their guard — one of the commanders takes a shower while a couple of the others smoke — Vassili mows them down with perfectly placed shots. Danilov, his life properly saved and his mind properly blown, reports to Supreme Commander Kruschev (Bob Hoskins) up with an idea to boost morale: Restart the army newspaper making Vassili a front-page hero.
The plan works. As the Russians gather for another offensive, Vassily is made a sniper and is let loose on languishing Germans everywhere. Danilov’s star rises too, and becomes indebted to his friend. But there is also the curious matter of Tania (Rachel Weisz), a civil defense worker who they meet after a mission. Her knowledge of languages and intellectual bent fits Danilov, but it is the instinctual and charismatic Vassili, whose goal is to work in a factory after the war, who draws her gaze. But their peace is shattered when Konig (Harris) is sent on a mission to kill the propaganda poster boy, so that maybe some Nazi morale will be lifted for a change.
The battle scenes, in cinematographer Robert Fraisse‘s flat, gunmetal-grey look, are terrific, and the wide sweeping shots of chaos and war are excellent uses of CGI. With the star power of Law, Fiennes, Hoskins and Harris and solid work by Weisz — and an all-too brief appearance by Ron Perlman — the dialogue scenes adequately drive the plot, though the low-key approach curiously undercuts the drama.
I don’t know whether Tania existed in history, or if she did, if her story is accurately portrayed. But the scene in which she ventures into the sniper’s home to find him and then makes love to him just centimeters out of Konig’s sight smacks of Hollywoodization — that is, the constant urge to hammer real-life stories to fit a Syd Field paradigm.
But then, dialogue isn’t an Annuad strong point. After all, this is a man who has made two entire movies — “Quest for Fire” and the vastly underrated “The Bear” — that had no dialogue at all. He is at home in the wilds, and “Enemy at the Gates” takes off when it becomes crouching Russian, hidden Nazi — two men squaring off in a battle that is 90 percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration.
Annaud is then visually in his element. “Enemy at the Gates” plays out in and around the gnarled, snowy ruins of homes, office buildings, factories and streets — an almost post-apocalyptic landscape (kudos to production designer Wolf Kroeger) that is alternately eerie and sad. There’s a beautifully staged shootout in a bombed-out department store, but even simple shots, like a shiny black boot removing itself from a polishing stand only to be replaced by it’s brother caked in mud, are a delight. Thank goodness for a film directed with the big screen in mind, which doesn’t happen as often as you might think.
There isn’t much of a rousing climax to “Enemy at the Gates,” just a sense of duty well done. In Annuad’s world, those who are most in tune with and adaptable to even the harshest side of nature are the ones who always survive.