Tossed off a boat with a thousand others, no training, no equipment, no camaraderie. Only a tattered uniform on their backs, sometimes recycled ones stripped off of the dead. There are not enough guns, cheap little five shot rifles that the howling uniforms lucky enough to be behind the lines toss to every other man shoved off of the boats. One for every two, they say. The one with the gun shoots, the one without follows. If the first dies, the second picks up the gun. The masses are shoved forward, no brave sentiment and calls to country in their hearts, only animal terror. They turn to run, to swim across the half frozen river if they must, but are stopped by the machine guns of their own soldiers. Cannon to the front of them, cannon behind. The only way out is through fire, whether their own or their enemy’s. The Light Brigade had it lucky.
Enemy at the Gates shows us the Battle of Stalingrad from the point of view of a Russian soldier named Vassili Zaitsev, played deftly by Jude Law with a farm boy innocence that gradually loses it’s shine to the horror around him. It’s a role in contrast to the typical Law character of the lovable asshole. He’s supported by Joseph Fiennes playing the slimy political officer who creates an Army newspaper, to play up legends exactly like Zaitsev, to inspire the heroism that fear of the Germans and their own leaders had not managed to elicit thus far. Ed Harris nails the role of Erwin König, the German sniper brought in specifically to hunt for Zaitsev. And Rachel Weisz, the paragon of tough yet feminine. She manages to walk a careful line for the role. She’s too pretty, too delicate, and yet that’s also exactly what makes the character work, if she wasn’t those things she wouldn’t work as angel walking through earthly hell.
The story is based on a true one, although it plays monumentally loosely with the facts. Some historians argue there was a sniper’s duel, although no one argues it plays out the way it does in the film. Zaitsev was indeed a sniper in Stalingrad, and became a legendary figure both in Russia and around the world thanks to his discovery by Soviet propagandists during the war. As is usually the case, there were elements of reality far more interesting than what happened in the movie. Zaitsev started his own sniper school in a bombed out Stalingrad factory, training other Russian soldiers in the tactics he had developed. And König? There is no evidence he ever existed, but the Russians insisted that he did, and still exhibit in Moscow what they claim to be the rifle sight that was taken off of his body after Zaitsev killed him. That’s just strange enough that if a film tried it, the film would be considered less believable. It’s the sort of story that I would write a Storytellers piece about if they hadn’t already made a movie about it.
It’s not a perfect film. There are long stretches of the movie in which Zaitsev and Danilov seem to be dueling in a vast empty city, rather than one in which millions of soldiers are fighting and dying. The city is a labyrinth of rubble, but we hardly ever see any destruction, any actual fighting outside of the opening scene. But the balance to this is that the film manages to keep an incredible tension going, in a way reminiscent more of good horror films than anything else. Every time a character passes in front of an open window, there’s the sense that their head could disappear in a read cloud. The characters inch and crawl, keeping their bodies pressed tight against anything and everything like lizards avoiding the eyes of eagles.
The film has faults, the typical faults of a film trying to make history more interesting and actually making it less so. There are the typical pratfalls: add a kid to feel sorry for, add a beautiful love interest, make sure the antagonist is bad and the protagonist is good. But every once and a while cliches work, because if they didn’t, they’d never have become cliches in the first place. We need König to be a bastard, to be a goddamn Bavarian aristocrat who strings up children in order to set a trap. We need Zaitsev to be a shepherd. And the reason for those cliches is not just to make us like one more than the other, but in order to set up the stark dichotomy in the finale of their duel. König sets a trap by killing an innocent, but is snared by a trap set by a sacrifice to save an innocent. That’s the difference between the two, the difference between offense and defense, the difference between wolf and shepherd. König is exactly what we think we need to win wars, Zaitsev is what we actually do need. Not men willing to kill at any cost, but men who inspire the worst of us to die for them.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.