Main cast: Jude Law (Sgt Vassili Zaitsev), Joseph Fiennes (Commissar Danilov), Rachel Weisz (Tania Chernova), Bob Hoskins (Nikita Khrushchev), Ed Harris (Major Erwin Konings), and Gabriel Thomson (Sasha Fillipov)
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
As a war movie using the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad as a backdrop, Enemy at the Gates is initially solid. It’s compelling, tragic, and inspiring all at once.
Then someone gets this bright idea to mutate the tale of a reluctant war hero into a soap opera best retitled All about Vassili.
This one is a autobiographical/fancy retelling (I really don’t know how much is authentic in this movie) of the story of Vassili Zaitsev, a reluctant soldier who is made into a hero for the sake of boosting the morale of Russian soldiers in their stand against Hitler’s troops. The war is already started to gain control of the outpost of Stalingrad, for political as much as practical purposes (the name – Stalingrad – is such that the fall of this city will be a powerful blow to the morale of Russia). Abetted by partner-in-crime Danilov, they make a perfect brain (Danilov)/brawn (Vassili) pair.
Vassili becomes so successful in his charade that Germany sends Major Konings down to personally cut down that upstart Russian sniper.
Until the midpoint of this movie, Enemy at the Gates is an adrenaline-charged bumpy ride through the horrific consequences of war. It also inspires: war also brings out the best in the characters – nobility, courage, sacrifice – as well as the worst. And without any “America saves the world” nonsense prevalent in many hack Hollywood war movies, this one is also a novelty. The heroes here are Russians. Imagine that!
Then, someone decides to put in one of the most annoying female stereotypes I’ve ever encountered in a movie. Tania Chernova, supposedly intelligent and feisty, becomes a source of rivalry between Vassili and Danilov. And for what? Tania has no role in this movie at all. Even her “daring attempts” to rescue Vassili ends up with her necking with that man. Her character is nonexistent. She lives for Vassili. It’s all about Vassili. Vassili, Vassili, Vassili. It’s pathetic.
Even Major Konings is a severely underwritten character. Hence his supposedly omnipotent evilness never come off as terrifying at all. How could he even be evil? The movie doesn’t care about him. All it cares about is how Vassili and Tania will make love in a camp full of soldiers. Every potential aspect of good storytelling is sacrificed. Nobility, friendship? Screw that. Let’s have two men at each other’s throats as they fight over a woman instead!
And the ending scenes confirm just what I suspected. By this last scene itself, the movie proves one thing: who cares about what happens to Stalingrad? Apparently I’m more supposed to care about how Vassili is reunited with Tania. But with such lousy, underwritten characters populating this movie, really, I don’t give a damn.