Review of the Film, "Enemy at the Gates"

_Enemy at the Gates_ (2001)

Film reviewed for H-War by David R. Stone, History Department, Kansas
State University

First things first.  The film _Enemy at the Gates_ is a good thing for
the study of the Eastern Front during World War II.  If even one in
one hundred of those who see the film is inspired to pick up William
Craig's book _Enemy at the Gates_ or any other book on the war in the
east, then director and co-writer Jean-Jacques Annaud has done a great
service to those who research and teach Soviet history.  If it helps
even a little to bring the scale and importance of the Soviet-German
clash home to Western audiences, the film will right a great
historical wrong: the terrible ignorance among the Western public of
how central the Eastern Front was to the outcome of World War II.

That said, I found _Enemy at the Gates_ terribly disappointing.  As
both entertainment and a historical portrayal of the Battle of
Stalingrad, the film fell far short of its potential.  After beginning
with a visually spectacular sequence depicting young Soviet soldier
Vassili (sic) Zaitsev's arrival in Stalingrad, the remainder of the
film never lives up to the level promised by its opening.

This especially hurts because the elements to make a profoundly
interesting film were certainly present.  The battle of Stalingrad
offers all the human drama and pathos one could ask.  The filmmakers
spared no expense in sets and effects to recreate the look of a
devastated Stalingrad, down to Russian-language obscenities scrawled
on the walls.  The cast is top-notch: Jude Law is remarkably good as
Zaitsev; Rachel Weisz and Joseph Fiennes do the best they can with
underwritten parts as sniper Tania Chernova and political officer
Danilov.  Bob Hoskins is superb as a profane and warty Nikita
Khrushchev; likewise Ed Harris as the German master sniper Konig.

Despite all this, the film wastes these resources in an attempt to
recreate the strategy that James Cameron employed in _Titanic_: given
an historical moment of great emotional resonance, focus instead on a
love triangle worthy of teenagers and presumably aimed at appealing to
teenagers.  The plot follows Zaitsev as he arrives in Stalingrad as a
naive and innocent soldier, only to be immediately plunged into the
horrors of battle.  In a fortuitous encounter, Zaitsev demonstrates
his exceptional marksmanship by picking off five Germans in front of
Danilov.  Danilov then turns Zaitsev into a sniper-hero to inspire the
Soviet soldiers at Stalingrad.  They both encounter Tania Chernova, a
beautiful young intellectual turned soldier, and compete for her love
with heroism and gifts of sturgeon.  As Zaitsev's renown and kills
grow, the German army calls in Konig, their top sniper, to hunt him

Strictly as entertainment, I found the film remarkably slow-moving.
Others may appreciate the deliberate pace.  More serious, from my
point of view, were the historical inaccuracies and oversights that
mar the film.

William Craig's _Enemy at the Gates_ (New York, 1973) provides the
basic elements of the plot, and the main characters appear it:
Zaitsev, Chernova, Danilov, even the young boy spy Sacha Fillipov
(sic).  Therein lies the problem.  While a compelling writer with an
eye for detail, Craig is not particularly skeptical of his sources.
In his account of the sniper duel, Craig takes Stalinist propaganda at
face value.  There is no source outside of Soviet propaganda for even
the existence of the German supersniper (Konings in Craig's book;
Thorwald in others).  Craig took the propaganda built up around
Zaitsev's 242 kills as a sniper and presented it as truth, from where
it made its way onto the screen as an ostensibly true story.

There is nothing wrong with setting a fictional story against an
historical backdrop; to claim it as true is another matter.  In this
case, the sniper duel only adds to the plot's contrived elements:
Zaitsev and Chernova's chance encounter on a train to Stalingrad, or
Chernova's decision to become a sniper instead of a radio operator.
She returns to the front lines after she personally happens to
intercept a German transmission providing excruciating detail on the
death of her parents as part of a mass execution of a trainload of
deported Jews.

One irritating aspect of the film, as the above incident displays, is
its reliance on cliche.  Cliches do have the virtue of not being
strictly inaccurate--after all, cliches require an element of truth to
become cliches.  Still, they suggest a certain laziness of
presentation.  This would include the balalaikas that the Soviet
soldiers faithfully break out at quiet moments, and Khrushchev's
behest to a failed officer to kill himself to avert execution.  It
extends to the opening sequence of Zaitsev's introduction to
Stalingrad, where panicking soldiers are immediately shot, troops are
ordered into obviously suicidal attacks and machine-gunned when they
fall back, and due to lack of rifles half the troops are ordered to
seize up weapons from their fallen comrades (much more typical of the
Russian experience in World War I, not World War II). While these
certainly happened on the Eastern Front, their juxtaposition seems
forced and unoriginal.

While cliches may irritate, they are not the same as actual errors in
presentation, which _Enemy at the Gates_ suffers from in significant
numbers.  Quite often, errors in small particulars that grate on those
in the know are utterly irrelevant to what the general public will
take away from the film.  While these mistakes call into question the
filmmakers' credibility, historians must accept that no one will come
away with a faulty understanding of Stalingrad because Nikita
Khrushchev's name is misspelled in the end credits.  There are other
problems of this type: the commissar Danilov tells Zaitsev that the
Soviet people are reading about him "in the Crimea"; the Germans had
completely occupied the Crimea by July 1942, well before the events of
the film.  Zaitsev also hears of Danilov's promotion to the General
Staff--an odd career move for a junior political officer still at the
front.  Graduate students more knowledgeable than I in these fields
tell me that German aircraft bear Western Front markings, not Eastern
Front, and that Zaitsev's particular telescopic scope is
anachronistic.  There are certainly more.

Again, those errors are irritating to those who catch them, but minor
to any broad audience.  More serious are the errors that would lead to
serious misunderstandings of the battle and its context.  They are many.

Most significant is the picture the film gives of what truly mattered
at Stalingrad, and what the battle was like.  First, it presents a
picture of Stalingrad as a sniper's battle.  While snipers were
certainly significant, this ignores the more important lessons of
Stalingrad: the terrible overextension of German manpower and material
resources required by Hitler's drive on the Caucasus oil fields, the
astonishing endurance of individual Soviet soldiers, and the steadily
increasing abilities of the Soviet high command, which was able to
plan and organize an astoundingly successful counteroffensive to trap
Paulus' Sixth Army in the city.  It is illustrative that after the
climactic sniper's battle at the close of _Enemy at the Gates_, the
audience is simply told against a backdrop of cheering soldiers that
two months later the Soviets won the battle.  Given what has come
before, the viewer is forced to assume the Soviets sniped the Germans
to defeat.

The nature of the battle is also lost.  It is a cliche that the modern
battlefield appears empty--think, for example, how rare it is to see
combat photographs that manage to catch soldiers from opposing sides.
_Enemy at the Gates_ teaches something else; the modern battlefield
not only looks empty, but _is_ empty.  Stalingrad becomes for Zaitsev
and Konig a vast arena in which to wander about, searching for one
another.  The fact that hundreds of thousands of German and Soviet
soldiers were dying in the _crowded_ ruins of Stalingrad, with the
front lines often separated by a hallway or alley, is a fact that
makes only intermittent appearances--it would detract from the utterly
personal and contextless nature of the sniper duel.

There are other historical problems as well.  Ron Perlman's
exceedingly grizzled veteran sniper Kulikov tells a chronologically
muddled story of his training at a German sniper school (presumably as
part of the pre-1933 collaboration) while Hitler and Stalin strolled
arm in arm (not literally, we presume, but figuratively only after
1939).  Upon the outbreak of war (in 1941), he was then arrested and
beaten to force him to confess he was a German spy (typical of 1937).
  Thanks to this, he has a mouthful of steel teeth.  This last at
least is based on some reality: future Marshal Konstantin Rokossovskii
lost numerous teeth before getting out of the NKVD's clutches.

The Soviet high command is seriously distorted.  While Chuikov or
Vasilevskii never make an appearance, this is excusable: no film can
possibly show every aspect of a battle, or all the personalities
involved. What is inexcusable is the impression created that the
Stalingrad campaign was run by Nikita Khrushchev.  Bob Hoskins does
quite well at portraying Khrushchev in all his warty peasant
earthiness, but Khrushchev was simply not the essential figure that
the film portrays him as being.

Finally, at the film's climax, Danilov sacrifices himself in despair
over his loss of faith in Marxism-Leninism.  This is not because he
has decided that human interests outweigh class interests, or that the
theory of surplus value is nonsense, but because sexual jealousy will
make an egalitarian society impossible.  This does not, I find, ring
especially true when coming from a zealous young Stalinist.

To end on a brighter note, _Enemy at the Gates_ has at the very least
boosted the number of my students who drop by the office to ask
questions about Stalingrad.  I only wish it had done a better job of
giving them good answers.