Enemy at the Gates [DVD]
Screenplay : Jean-Jacques Annaud & Alain Godard
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Jude Law (Vassily Zaitsev), Joseph Fiennes (Danilov), Rachel Weisz (Tania), Ed Harris (Major Koenig), Bob Hoskins (Krushchev), Ron Perlman (Koulikov), Gabriel Thomson (Sasha), Eva Mattes (Mrs. Filipov)
Jean-Jacque Annaud's Enemy at the Gates takes place during the Battle of Stalingrad, in which the Soviet Red Army fought to keep their city from falling into German hands (it is thought to have been one of the major turning points of World War II). Taking place from July 1942 to February 1943, it was a fierce, drawn-out siege that resulted in the invading German soldiers being repelled, thus ending the eastward movement of the Third Reich and shifting the momentum to the Allies. During the nine-month battle, the Soviets alone lost some 750,000 soldiers, which is an extraordinary amount when you consider that, during all of World War II, the U.S. lost only 290,000.
The Battle of Stalingrad makes a compelling backdrop for the often melodramatic narrative, which is based on the real-life Soviet hero Vassily Zaitsev. Writer-director Jean-Jacque Annaud (Seven Years in Tibet) and co-screenwriter Alain Godard have fashioned what is essentially an old-fashioned war epic, complete with a romantic triangle and thunderous battle sequences on an epic scale.
Borrowing some of the visual stylistics employed to such harrowing effect by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan (1998), Annaud gives Enemy at the Gates a gritty, gory texture that does not shy away from the horrors of war. Particularly gruesome are the opening scenes depicting freshly dispatched Soviet soldiers crossing a river into Stalingrad under heavy machine-gun fire from German planes. The overwhelming visual and aural combination of hundreds of blood squibs and the awful sound effects of metal piercing flesh, along with the panicked realization that there's nowhere to go, gives these scenes a stomach-clenching quality. Even more disturbing is the Soviet officers' cold-blooded killing of their own soldiers if they show any signs of retreat or desertion.
Shot primarily in tones of gray and brown amid crumbling buildings set against overcast skies, Enemy at the Gates is visually bleak, but emotionally engaging. Although it leaves hints and traces of bitterness about the role of propaganda in times of war, it is essentially a heroic tale of determination and survival.
The film's opening sequence shows how Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law) was taught by his shepherd grandfather to be an expert marksman in order to protect their animals from wolves. Once in Stalingrad, Vassily displays his shooting prowess by expertly taking out five German officers, duly impressing a political officer named Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). Being a good propagandist, Danilov knows a good thing when he see it, and he convinces General Nikita Krushcev (Bob Hoskins) to allow him to turn Vassily into a national hero in order to boost sagging morale. Vassily is promoted to the sniper squad, and through newspapers and pamphlets, Danilov turns his sniping into the stuff of legend.
Because Vassily is so successful in taking out Germany officers amid the ruins of Stalingrad, the Germans bring in their own expert marksman, Major Koenig (Ed Harris). Thus, the last half of the film turns into a one-on-one game between Vassily and Koenig as each plots and schemes to kill the other. In this mano a mano battle, Vassily and Koenig transcend their positions as mere warriors. Rather, in the eyes of their fellow soldiers, they become heroic symbols of their respective countries, and the prospect of one taking out the other becomes a key symbolic victory that could be used to great effect by either propaganda machine.
Enemy at the Gates certainly has its share of grim spectacle, but Annaud gives equal time to the development of the relationships among his characters. A romantic triangle evolves between Vassily and Danilov and a female volunteer soldier named Tania (Rachel Weisz). Danilov tries to keep Tania working in his office as a decoder and interpreter because she can speak German, but it is readily evident that she wants to fight alongside Vassily. The development of this romantic entanglement works emotionally, but it feels somewhat forced at times, as if it does not fully belong.
The relationship between Vassily and Danilov is more complex and interesting, as they move from mutual respect, to friendship, to antagonism as Vassily begins to feel that Danilov's persistent propaganda about him is creating a weight of expectation that he can no longer bear. This becomes particularly difficult when Vassily begins to doubt his ability to take down Major Koenig, who appears to a superior sniper.
As played by a sullen and monotone Ed Harris, Koenig is a stern man of few words, whose fierce blue eyes are always blazing with thought and strategy, even when the rest of him appears to be at rest. Harris perhaps underplays the character a little too much, running the risk of becoming a bore. (On a side note, it is somewhat disconcerting that none of the actors made any effort to appropriate a Russian or German accent. Rather, everyone speaks in either American- or British-inflected English, which brings up the questions: Is it more disconcerting to see British actors playing Russians with British accents, or to see British actors playing Russians with off-and-on, unconvincing Russian accents?)
The game of cat-and-mouse between Hoenig and Vassily, played out in the heavily shelled and ruinous remains of the buildings in downtown Stalingrad, makes for a compelling narrative, which is a real accomplishment considering that much of the game involves the two men hunkered down among piles of bricks, waiting for their prey to make a mistake and show himself in an open space. Annaud does an excellent job of conveying the essential strategy of this game—patience—without slowing down the story's pace. Instead, he keeps it moving briskly forward, and even when the conclusion is a bit too melodramatic and neatly wrapped up, the overall film is still effective in depicting both the tragic horrors and the vast human potential brought out by war.
|Enemy at the Gates DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby 5.1 Surround |
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Languages||English (5.1, 2.0), French (2.0)|
|Supplements|| Through the Crosshairs making-of featurette|
Inside Enemy at the Gates cast and crew interviews
Nine deleted scenes
Original theatrical trailer
|Paramount has given Enemy at the Gates an excellent anamorphic transfer in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Visually, the film is similar to Saving Private Ryan, which means that the colors are somewhat desaturated, with a heavy emphasis on browns, grays, and blacks (I don't think the sky is every anything other than gray). Yet, there are flashes of vibrant color from time to time, especially red in the form of either blood or the Soviet flag. The overall image is sharp and finely detailed, with solid black levels, good shadow detail, and not a hint of grain or artifacting.|
|The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is a stunner. Completely enveloping, it takes you right into the heart of the action, with imaging and directionality used almost constantly to suggest planes flying overhead, bombs exploding the background, and machine-gun fire whizzing by your ears. It's a loud soundtrack, to be sure—the heavy, rumbling low-end is put to great use—yet it it works so well not because it just blows you out of your seat with volume, but because it was thoughtfully mixed to convey a real sense of being there.|
| Two featurettes are included on this disc. Through the Crosshairs, which runs roughly 19 minutes in length, consists primarily of interviews done during production with director Jean-Jacques Annaud, art director Neil Lamont, producers Alisa Tager and John D. Schofield, and actors Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Bob Hoskins, Rachel Weisz, and Ed Harris. There is some behind-the-scenes footage of the massive Stalingrad set being constructed and a brief discussion of some of the special effects used in one of the major battle sequences, but it is largely lacking in the kind of production details that a movie of this size and scope deserves. Inside Enemy at the Gates consists of 15 minutes of staged interviews with Annaud, Law, Fiennes and Weisz, during which they discuss their characters and how they approached playing them. |
A nice addition to the disc is a series of nine deleted scenes, all of which are presented in nonanamorphic widescreen and look to have been taken from a working print. Most of these scenes are not particularly crucial, and some are simply fragments of existing scenes that were taken out in order to shorten them. Nevertheless, it's always interesting to see what the director felt could be taken out with harming the overall impact of the film.
Lastly, the original theatrical trailer is included in anamorphic widescreen.
Copyright ©2002 James Kendrick
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