Rounding out my recent war film kick is 2001’s Enemy at the Gates. Yes, I watched it on Memorial Day, and no, it does not deal with the United States. It does focus on a conflict the United States was in at the time it is set, World War II. Does that count? It should not matter, though, as it is a time when we honor those who fell in combat. Granted, the people who are the heroes and heroines of this particular film lived in a country that would one day become the United States’ most bitter enemy, the Soviet Union. Still, it was a terrible struggle for Communist Russia, so much so that instead of referring to the conflict the same way we do, they called it The Great Patriotic War. That alone should give a sense of how committed they were to stopping and turning back the invasion of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. For a more vivid picture, watch the film.
When young Vassily Zaitzev (Alxenader Schwan) was a young boy growing up in the Ural Mountains of Russia, his grandfather (Mikhail Matveyev) taught him to shoot. This is to prove crucial in Enemy at the Gates as a grown-up Vassily (Jude Law), now a common soldier in the Red Army, goes into battle to defend the symbolically important city of Stalingrad during World War II. The only problem, though, is that first he and his comrades have to cross the Volga River while being buzzed by German planes before they get to the city. Once there, he is not even given a rifle, but instead must follow behind a fellow soldier with a handful of bullets waiting for the man in front of him to die. They are forced into a suicidal attack where if they retreat their own side shoots them. He survives by taking shelter in a derelict fountain between the two combatting lines. He is soon joined there by Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a Soviet political officer whose speeding car wrecks when an artillery shell lands near it. He takes a weapon off a dead soldier, but then Vassily offers to shoot for him. The skills he honed as a boy pay off when he is able to take out several German officers in quick order with Danilov watching. Together, they are able to make it back to their own side, and thus begins Vassily’s legend as the top Russian sharpshooter. This becomes an important rallying point for the Soviet army and its citizens trapped in the city, particularly when Nikita Khurshchev (Bob Hoskins, and yes, if you know your history, that Nikita Khrushchev) is put in charge of the defense. As a man who has an eye for the political, an important trait in Soviet Russia, he sees the need for providing hope. Thus, when Danilov provides Vassily’s story, it becomes an emotional boost for the town and its defenders. Such a problem does Vassily’s and his fellow snipers become for the Germans that they call in a top marksman of their own, Major Erwin König (Ed Harris), whose sole purpose for coming to this battle is to kill Vassily. What proceeds from there is a deadly game of cat and mouse between Vassily and Major König, each with near misses in killing one another. The key to their interactions is a young Russian boy named Sasha Filippov (Gabriel Thomson). He becomes a sort of servant for Major König, and in doing so passes information to the German officer, while also informing Vassily as to what the boy has revealed. Unfortunately, Major König soon figures out that Sasha is a double agent, and hangs Sasha as bait in order to lure Vassily out of hiding. With difficulty, he manages to control his emotions. What ends up helping him is Danilov. The political officer had become jealous of Vassily’s growing relationship with Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz), a female Russian soldier who was also a close friend of Sasha. Danilov had been on the brink of turning Vassily over to the Russian authorities on a false accusation of treachery when Tania arrives to tell Danilov what happened to Sasha. While they try to get Tania’s mother (Eva Mattes) out of the city, Tania is wounded. Seeing her, Danilov goes to Vassily in guilt. He then does what he can to reveal his position to Major König, which is the opening Vassily needs to find his adversary. After killing Major König, Vassily finds Tania, and they apparently have a nice Soviet ever after.
Though I have said it before, it bears repeating: war is terrible. Enemy at the Gates vividly reinforces this concept. It is made even more poignant given the subject matter. The Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted for months spanning late 1942 to early 1943, was one where the citizens of the city were caught up in some of the worst fighting. Despite constant bombing and German troops occupying significant portions of the city, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin did not allow anyone, including non-combatants, to retreat. There is a saying in war that there are no atheists in a fox hole, meaning that in the middle of battle everyone is praying to a higher power for survival. This is portrayed in the film. The Filippovs, Tania, and Danilov are all Jewish, and they seem to practice their faith despite the communist distaste for such matters. At one point when Tania is worried that Vassily had been killed, she prayed for a sign that her lover still lived, and then Sasha appears with the good news. I love hearing stories such as this one. God acts in both great and small ways. We seem to be mostly blind to the bigger acts. I do not know why, but the tendency is to believe that great events are the result of chance rather than an act of God. Regardless, the little moments, such as when a quiet prayer is answered, draw us closer to God than most mighty acts. Ultimately, that is the point of the Faith life, or at least that is what I tell my spiritual directees. It is nice to see these kinds of things portrayed on the big screen, especially in the midst of such deadly events.
Enemy at the Gates is as good as a historical war film as it gets. The opening sequence where he has to cross the Volga, and then the subsequent attack, are as tense as anything you see in movies like Saving Private Ryan. Like the Tom Hanks classic, Enemy at the Gates is bloody and violent, so I would not show it to the young ones. There is also a needless, and rather awkward, sex scene between Vassily and Tania, though thankfully no nudity. Still, overall, particularly if you are a history buff, it is worth seeing.