The Enemy At The Gates
A Film by Jean-Jacques Annaud
writtten by Annaud and Alain Godard
This film by Jean-Jacques Annaud is a polished piece of work, made with great technical skill. Based on the true story of the exploits of a Russian sniper during the siege of Stalingrad in 1942, the film has all the drama of the life and death struggle it recounts. Fine performances by Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Ed Harris and Joseph Fiennes give the characters real substance, but an undisciplined approach to the material never allows the film to penetrate far beyond its own sumptuously glossy surface.
Among Annaud's best known previous work seen in the US are his adaptation of Marguerite Duras' The Lover, and the recent Brad Pitt vehicle Seven Years In Tibet, as well as 1986's The Name of the Rose, on which he collaborated with Alain Godard, who also co-screenwrites the current project. All these films share a wonderful visual quality that is one of Annaud's great strengths. Unfortunately, The Enemy at the Gates also shares a tendency to rely too heavily on the power of visual imagery and film-craft, that is the failing of The Lover and Seven Years... as well.
The film tells the story of Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law), an ordinary Russian soldier who happened to be a remarkable marksman. During the siege, his ability to effectively target German officers became one of the few sources of hope and pride for the beleaguered Russians. In the end - in the film version - the Germans send Major Koenig (Ed Harris), one of their finest snipers, expressly to eliminate him. The "duel" between the two men becomes the film's dramatic engine.
It is unfortunate that such a clichéd focus was chosen for the plot. The story is alive with possibilities, some of which begin to develop, but Annaud and Godard have chosen the path of least resistance, and have created a script that, while convincing and sometimes riveting in its details, is so familiar in its broad outlines that its extraordinary story is made to seem commonplace. In the effort of simplifying the interesting and complex characters to serve the mechanics of the plot, the ambiguous humanity that makes them compelling is mostly lost.
Films about war always present something of a problem. With the exception of a few truly harrowing examples, like Kubrick's Paths of Glory, or Peter Weir's Gallipoli, the depiction of military struggle is almost impossible to evoke without simultaneously glorifying and romanticizing the horrible, mostly futile reality of war. The easy path is to use the adrenaline-inducing drama of the life and death situations to manipulate the audience into what amounts to a gory "thrill-ride."
Annaud tries to evoke the mass slaughter, the senseless sacrifice, the ruthless savagery, but he is aware, as film-makers have always been, that the graphic depiction of combat is too gruesome for the screen. As a result, his fields of dead bodies, in their earth-tone grays, browns and greens, seem more like set-decoration than they do actual dead human beings. As screen images it is impossible for them to have anything like the impact that the reality of their presence would have. The audience is can't participate, even vicariously, in the reality, and are reduced to voyeurs at a grisly tableau vivant.
The distance thus created undermines the emotional power of the story, although the actors work hard to redeem it. When Vassily and Tania (Rachel Weisz) make furtive love under a blanket on the floor, among a host of their exhausted comrades, their desperation, the affirmative power of their affection that is communicated by Weisz and Law loses some of its effect through failure to convincingly evoke a contrast with the bleakness and despair all around them.
Annaud works hard to create a version of that bleakness, but it is too well-designed, too beautifully framed and photographed, and ends up having the same relationship to the banal yet excruciating suffering of real war that "heroin chic" bears to the ravages of real heroin addiction. A pile of bright yellow "chemical dust" against the almost monochrome grays, browns and silvers of a factory loading dock, creates a beautiful setting for one scene.
The litter-strewn floors of a blown-out department store provide a background in another scene, but the self-consciousness of the excellent camera work, the evocative use of the smashed remains of ordinary life as counterpoint to the savage intent of the combatants, is at once powerful and powerfully distracting. The emotions aroused feel artificially manipulated.
The dialogue is mostly quite fluid and natural, but the few exceptions - the most notable of which, perhaps, is a poorly conceived and written final speech from Joseph Fiennes as Danilov - are unfortunately in some of the most important places.
Ed Harris, as the villain of the piece, Major Koenig, is a stock Nazi. As written, Koenig is heartless, supercilious and unflinching, and nearly super-human in his competence. Harris is clearly, at certain points, trying to humanize him, but the script insists on an "ultimate showdown between good and evil," and Harris has to play it.
The weak character writing isn't helped by the fact that there are a number of plot points that get away from the writers. In one scene, Vassily is pinned down, unarmed, in a bombed-out factory. Koenig is securely ensconced in a concrete bunker, waiting for him to make a wrong move. With an assist from Tania, Vassily manages to distract Koenig's attention, and wound him by shooting him in the hand.
Never mind that a slug from a high-powered sniper's rifle would do much more serious damage to Koenig's hand that the superficial "flesh wound" with which he walks away. Vassily and Tania now have the wounded Koenig trapped in a tiny concrete room with only one exit. Yet in the next scene, he has somehow escaped to fight another day.
But these criticisms are elicited because much of the film is so good - it is so nearly something extraordinary. Annaud's stylistic mastery - Seven Years In Tibet and The Lover are outstanding examples of visual film-making - is on display here, and is, on one level, a delight to behold. It is unfortunate that it interferes with narrative intent of the film and competes with story for attention.
The greatest strength of the film - other than the double-edged sword of Annaud's technical proficiency - is the acting. Ed Harris, despite the struggle described above, manages to breathe a certain kind of chillingly credible life into his stereotypical character. Ron Perlman has a marvelous cameo as Koulikov, the experienced sharpshooter sent to coach Vassily. Bob Hoskins is wonderful as a young Nikita Khrushchev, a zealous and desperate party functionary whose entire career is riding on his ability to do the impossible - save Stalingrad.
Joseph Fiennes makes a good showing as Danilov, the young propaganda officer who turns Vassily into an icon of resistance, and then loses to him in a love triangle. His complicated personal entanglements with the other characters conflict with his self-image as a loyal party servant, a comrade ready to sacrifice himself at a moment's notice for the cause. Danilov's struggle with this dichotomy is one of the emotional anchors of the story. Fiennes adds many very effective small touches to the character and makes even his badly-written crucial moment somewhat effective.
Rachel Weisz has a simpler, more down to earth character to portray as Tania, and she does her job well. The confusion of a young Jewish girl trying to be the "new Soviet woman" in the midst of the chaos of the Nazi threat, the siege, the loss of her family and her feelings for Vassily is evident in a touching tentativeness she brings even to Tania's strongest moments. She embodies the warring impulses of personal desire and social/moral duty in a way that is almost painful to watch. Weisz approaches the role - which reduced to its weakest form could be characterized as "the love interest," or "the girl" - with a delicacy and intelligence that makes her scenes among the most interesting and engrossing in the film.
Jude Law contributes a very strong performance, playing against the upper-class, pretty-boy type in which he has generally been cast. Looking every inch the gawky young peasant, Law uses body language and vocal characterization to underscore Vassily's modesty and innocence. His evolution from frightened recruit to "Hero Of The Revolution," - and the extent to which the frightened recruit is still visible in the evolved hero - provides much of the interest in the story.
Law's ability to expand his somewhat two-dimensional character into one about whose fate we come to care is what makes the film work as well as it does. One of the principle threads of the narrative is this "coming-of-age" story, and it is the genuine emotional vulnerability and sensitivity Law manages to tap into that carries his character far beyond the "Audie Murphy" conventions of military heroism.
The production values are always strong in Annaud's films, and this one is no exception. If anything, the elements of design, sets, costumes, music and so forth are too strong - not invasive, but just too enticing to our attention - to serve the difficult and delicate balance of concentration the narrative requires.
Taken all together, this film is disappointingly less than the sum of its parts. Excellent individual elements distract from one another rather than harmonize, and the film's strengths in some cases only serve to emphasize its weaknesses. One widely-read critic described this film about the desperate siege and defense of Stalingrad, in which thousands on both sides were slaughtered and which was a crucial point in World War Two, was as: "rousing action-adventure."
This confusion - akin to describing Schindler's List as an "exciting suspense film" - is partly the fault of the lack of balance in Annaud's directorial approach. There is so much craft in the forefront - perhaps in an attempt to make the film more "commercially appealing" - that it obscures the substance. Annaud is a talented filmmaker, but ironically it is his indulgence of his talent, not his lack of talent, that keeps this film about war from "being all that it can be."
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.