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Enemy at the Gates

2 Ratings: 3.5
A movie directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

September 1942. The German Army has advanced to the gates of Stalingrad. The Russian Army holds on desperately. It is so poorly equipped that every pair of soldiers is given a single rifle--the second man only gets the weapon when the first is cut down. … see full wiki

Tags: Movies, Dramas
Cast: Ed Harris
Release Date: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
1 review about Enemy at the Gates

Lest We Forget the Human Cost of War!

  • Sep 25, 2004
Pros: Acting, sets, storyline is compelling.

Cons: Too many loose ends; sub-plot not fully developed.

The Bottom Line: Enemy at the Gates reminds us that war exacts a human cost that we should think long and hard about before we seek to conduct war for any reason.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie''s plot.

Historical Background/Perspective

On June 22 1941, Germany and its Axis allies (principally Italy, Austria, & Romania) invaded the Soviet Union, quickly advancing deep into Soviet territory. This after Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact before opening salvos of the War which saw the Soviets invading Poland in league with Germany.

During the summer and autumn of 1941 the Soviet Army and Air Force suffered enumerable defeats at the hands of the German Army’s lightening warfare tactics. In early December of 1941 however, Soviet forces in and around Moscow, the Soviet capital, counter-attacked on a large scale in an epic struggle known as the Battle of Moscow. The Germans, with their supply lines over-extended, their men exhausted and ill-equipped for winter warfare, were driven back from Moscow never to return.

But in the spring of 1942 the German offensive had regained momentum and this time the sought after prize was the Caucasus region of south western Russia and the city of Stalingrad (today known as Volgograd) on the Volga River. One of the bloodiest and costliest—in terms of human life and property destruction—the Battle of Stalingrad was a major turning point in World War II. The battle, which raged for some 200 days (the longest contiguous battle in recorded human history) is widely accepted to include the intial German siege of the city, the battle inside the city, and the Soviet counter-offensive that eventually trapped and destroyed the German and other Axis forces in and around the city.

Total casualties are estimated at between 1.6 to 2 million men, women, and children dead; seventy-five percent of which were Soviet soilders and or civilians. For their parts the Germans and her allies lost about a quarter of their total manpower on the “Eastern Front,” and were never able to fully recover from the defeat at Stalingrad. Despite the staggering loss of life however, for the Soviets, the victory at Stalingrad marked the beginning of the liberation of the Soviet Union, which eventually led to victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.

All of which bring us to Enemy at the Gates, a “fact-based” chapter in the Battle of Stalingrad that pitted Russian snipers (they played a large part in the Battle for Stalingrad, and are credited with killing well over 1000 German soldiers during the battle) against German snipers in the ruins of the city. It is rare that we afforded an ambitious cinematic glimpse of WWII from a perspective other than American or British.


Based upon William Craig’s book about the real (but fictionalized) life of Vassili Zaitsev, a Russian shepherd and World War II sniper, and directed by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Quest for Fire, Seven Years in Tibet), Enemy at the Gates begins in the middle of the Battle of Stalingrad as German and Soviet troops face off in the heart of the city as the former tries to push the later into the Volga, trapping the city’s civilian population in the middle. Having encircled the city, German forces are slowly advancing in bloody house-to-house urban warfare, and we are afforded a view of the ongoing slaughter through the eyes of unlikely hero Soviet Army sniper Vassili Zaitsev portrayed by Jude Law (Gattaca, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain). Vassili is a simple shepherd from the Urals who has come to defend the city named after the then Soviet leader who is a hero of the Revolution. Vassili learned to shoot a rifle in order to survive life as a Soviet peasant and is inducted into the elite Soviet Army sniper corps after his marksmanship is noticed by a Soviet political officer named Danilov portrayed by Joseph Fiennes (Stealing Beauty, Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth), who see an opportunity to boost moral by writing a column in the Soviet press dedicated to Vassili’s sniper exploits.

As Vassili’s body count climbs, Danilov’s ploy works and because of his articles Vassili is soon a legendary—if not reluctant—hero of Stalingrad and the symbol of hope to thousands of soldiers and civilians alike. His growing stature prompts the German Army to bring in their own legend, one Konig portrayed by Ed Harris (The Truman Show, Pollock, The Hours) a merciless German sniper with an impressive headcount of his own.

The resulting dual is an absorbing one-on-one battle played out between two sharpshooters in the midst of an ongoing war that is much a personal grudge match as it is part of a larger battle. The battle between the two plays out amidst the rubble and mayhem that has become Stalingrad and the toll is exacting not just on the gladiators themselves, but those around them as well. Of course the story is told mostly from Vassili’s point of view, he is after all the hero, and Konig the evil protagonist, the boogieman so to speak, the harbinger of darkness.

Final Thoughts

There are bit players throughout this drama, and a little love triangle blossoms between Vassili, Danilov, and a resistance fighter named Tania portrayed by Rachel Weisz (Stealing Beauty, The Mummy, Runaway Jury) that was not very well developed.

Of course there were flies in the ointment, where dramatic license superseded the realities of history, but one has to bear in mind Enemy at the Gates is based on a fictionalized account of a real man so…The acting was suburb, the sets real to life, and the action, while not worthy of say Saving Private Ryan (the gold standard of WWII movies), it was compelling enough to move the story along at a brisk pace.

When all is said and done I enjoyed Enemy at the Gates as I tend to enjoy all historical fiction because it educates while it entertains. In this world of the televised war, in which the media concentrates more on the gee-wiz technology of war rather then the human cost, Enemy at the Gates reminds us that war exacts a human cost that we should think long and hard about before we seek to conduct war for any reason.

Two million dead in 200 days of slaughter, that is more then the population of the nation’s fifth largest city Philadelphia.


Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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