With an onslaught of battle movies this season, "Enemy At The Gates" demands immediate attention. Why? Simply because it's brilliant.
When screenwriter Alan Godard approached director Jean-Jacques Annaud ("Seven Years In Tibet") with an account mentioned in William Craig's book "Enemy At The Gates", they decided to use the chronicle to build a film.
The film centres around the Battle of Stalingrad, 1942, where the Russians were losing lives attempting to stave off German attacks on the river Volga. Spiraling down to the discovery of a phenomenal sniper in the Russian ranks, the film closes in on the dynamics of this rural marksman, Vassili Zaitsev (Academy Award nominee Jude Law from "the Talented Mr. Ripley").
While the morale of the Russian troops plummets, Danilov (Joseph Fiennes from "Shakespeare in Love"), a bespectacled Russian officer, devises a plan to breed optimism within the shell-shocked city. Introducing Vassili to the masses, he builds him into a public hero, stamping his picture on the underground press, while urging the Russians to follow his lead and defend Stalingrad.
While both men start off as best friends, a common love interest in the guise of Tania (Rachel Weisz), a female soldier, sets them on uneven ground.
The Germans, unhappy with the rising incline of the Russian resistance, decide to do away with Vassili, and bring to the city their own prize, German sharpshooter Major Koenig (Ed Harris). And what began with a strategy for Russian defense skews into a personal battle of skill, with each man hunting the other. Engaging guerilla devices and battle technique, the intrigue and drama are redolent of a masterminded coup.
Anchoring real-life characters, like Vassili Zaitsev, who was a celebrated Russian sniper during World War Two, and Major Koenig (although his credentials are dubious), the film is a take-off on an event that might well have taken place among the ruins of the Russian city.
While the story unfolds effortlessly, the gargantuan sets and the accompanying score are a guaranteed thrill. Ironically, the locations used to depict parts of Stalingrad, are in East Germany, and while the grime and rubble of the war have been replicated to a T, the hard-hitting, uncompromising visuals rival the brilliance of "Saving Private Ryan". All performances are commendable, as if the character was tailor-made for each actor.
Watching this film garners your attention in the same way an arresting Leon Uris war drama does - like a bullet to your brain!This article was first published on 16 Aug 2001.