Enemy at the Gates (2001) Movie Review

I call “Enemy at the Gates” a German movie, but it could easily be an American or British film. The movie stars English speakers in Russian roles, and Ed Harris, a distinctively American actor, as a German Major. In an aesthetic choice, the actors all speak English regardless of their character’s nationality. Because this seems to be the case throughout the movie, the effect is not as jarring, and easily accepted and soon becomes a nonentity. (After all, if I have to listen to yet another foreign actor faking a “Russian” accent while speaking English… I will never understand why people choose to do this, because the whole thing is absurd.)

“Enemy at the Gates” is the second Trivial Love Triangle During a Major Historical Event movie that came out in 2001, the same year that saw the release of “Pearl Harbor,” the other Trivial Love Triangle During a Major Historical Event movie. Both films, in fact, are so similar that it’s impossible not to lump them together, even if one were to forget that both are Trivial Love Triangle During a Major Historical Event movies. Both films involve a love triangle consisting of 2 men and one woman; both are set during World War II; both ends with 1/3rd of the love triangle conveniently killed off so the other 2/3rd of the triangle can live happily ever after. And, besides all that, both have love triangles that brings nothing to the movie except to pad the running time and in an effort to draw the hopeless romantics sector of the moviegoing public. Or perhaps I’m just being too cynical and the film really did have a reason to include a futile love triangle…?

“Enemy at the Gates” stars Jude Law as a Russian farm boy who joins the army at a time when the Germans are about to break through the city of Stalingrad, Russia’s greatest city. The fall of Stalingrad would mark the destruction of Russia, literally and figuratively, and the Russian brass, controlled by Nikita Khrushchev (he of “We will bury you!” fame), is determined to not let that happen.

In an effort to stop the German juggernaut, the Russian brass is sending wave after wave of weaponless farm boys to die at the front lines. If the Russian soldiers, half of whom have no weapons with which to fight, flee the battlefield, they are shot down by their own people. So either way, they are lamb to the slaughter, and their slaughter is shown in horrific detail by Annaud. It’s a terrible fight, a losing fight, and everyone knows it, but no one is willing to accept it, most of all Khrushchev and his people.

Then one day, during another hopeless battle, Jude Law (“Road to Perdition”) distinguishes himself as a marksman by (finally) getting his hands on a rifle and single-handedly killing 5 German officers. Luckily for Jude, a Russian public relations officer played by Joseph Fiennes (“Killing Me Softly”) is there to record it. By the time Jude, as Vassili, returns to the barracks, he’s become a legend. Vassili’s legend grows with each sniping run into German lines, and soon the Russian army is hailing him as a hero, and stories about his killings are giving the Russian soldiers renewed spirits, while at the same time scaring the Germans.

In an effort to stop the dangerous Vassili, the Germans send for their own master sniper, Major Koenig (Ed Harris). Koenig has a back story of his own, and has come to fight with Vassili seemingly not for his country, but on a personal death wish brought on by the death of his own son, lost elsewhere in the war. Koenig is a stoic, brooding figure, and is the crafty veteran to Jude Law’s brash Vassili.

Now, if co-writer/director Annaud (“The Lover”) had stuck to the above description as the whole movie, “Enemy at the Gates” would be a stellar film. Instead, Annaud, falling into the same pit of misery that befell “Pearl Harbor,” unnecessarily burdens us with an uninspired (and dare I say it, unconvincing) love triangle between Rachel Weisz as a Russian Jew, Vassili, and Fiennes’ Danilov.

The movie is most effective when it concentrates on Vassili and his hunts through the bombed-out city of Stalingrad. Annaud frames the city in stark colors, giving us an effective view of Stalingrad as a city under siege. As Vassili and his team of snipers burrow and crawl and climb their way across the city’s bomb-marked landscape, the movie is at its most intense. It’s only when Fiennes and the silly love triangle enter the picture that the movie bogs down into standard, recognizable mush.

There is a plot point near the end when Danilov realizes that Weisz has given her heart and body to Law’s character, and feeling betrayed, decides to fight back by spreading untrue propaganda about Vassili to the Russian brass. This is shown, but there is no resolution to it. Did the brass receive Danilov’s propaganda? Did they buy it? Were there any repercussions against Vassili? Nothing is ever mentioned about this betrayal again. Why bring it up in the first place? As a matter of fact, why introduce a love triangle in the first place?

Jean-Jacques Annaud (director) / Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard (screenplay)
CAST: Joseph Fiennes …. Danilov
Jude Law …. Vassili
Rachel Weisz …. Tania
Bob Hoskins …. Nikita Khrushchev

Buy Enemy at the Gates on DVD