Inspired by a true story, “Enemy at the Gates” is set in Stalingrad in the autumn of 1942. Hitler’s army is advancing into Russia and the strength and morale of the Russian army is low. Men are dying left and right, either from the bullets of the Germans, or from their own officers. Our story opens aboard a rail car, where soldiers are herded in like cattle, among them a young shepherd boy from the Ural Mountains, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law). He and the rest of the human freight are led directly from the car onto barges to cross the shores of the Volga, where the Luftwaffe immediately bombards them, and the combat scenes are reminiscent of “Saving Private Ryan”. Once the decimated troops land on the banks of the virtual ruins of Stalingrad, we start our focus on Vassili who while hiding from Nazi foot soldiers meets with a fellow comrade, a political officer (read: Government Propagandist) Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) who grabs a rifle and attempts to take a few Germans with him. However, Vassili is the one who rises from the trenches and hits the Germans between the eyes, literally. He demonstrates his remarkable mettle as a sharpshooter, and Danilov takes notice.
Danilov later reports that among the Red Army that there is a hero, a motivator within the tattered remains of the soldiers, and that person is Vassili. They become fast friends, and Danilov sees the opportunity to build the unsuspecting sharpshooter into a hero and symbol of the war. He is lauded and publicized far and wide by the army, the people, and the Politburo and gives badly needed hope to the war torn communist party.
Vassili begins to do considerable damage to the ranks and morale of the Nazi army and the spirits of both the Russian people and the military begin to rise like a Phoenix. This is where the plot thickens as the German’s who are now nervous; send one of their best snipers (Ed Harris) to even the score; that is to kill Vassili.
Several conflicts develop, including one between Vassili and Danilov as a result of a mutual love interest that they share. The love story is interwoven into the scenario and at times distracts from the main storyline. An additional conflict occurs between Vassili and himself, as he is no longer the hunter but the hunted as well, and friends prove treacherous. He grows increasingly uncomfortable with the legend he has become and has doubts that he can live up to the hype.
The enmity between Vassili and Harris goes far beyond sniper vs. sniper, but as the movie progresses it becomes Russia vs. Germany, Communism vs. Nazism, Bavarian Aristocrat vs. Ural Sheep Herder, an educated deer hunter vs. a barely literate wolf poacher. Both men swap roles as predator and prey and after a while the cat and mouse game becomes old, as the suspense of their solitary battle wanes. Throughout the film, the sky is perpetually gray and there is very little bright color, save the crimson stains of blood. This is cunningly done to maintain the grim atmosphere looming over the rubble of Stalingrad and the broken spirit of the Soviets.
Overall, Enemy at the Gates was a great movie, although it gets predictable at times, and the outcome seems somewhat obligatory. It has all the typical elements of a war movie, hero, villain, pretty girl, blood, guns, and gore. The irony I noticed was that the Red Army was fighting for Communist ideals, which were that of a classless society, but even within the microcosm of military and the politicos, the value and importance of class was clearly evident. Finally, you’ll have to slightly suspend your disbelief, as some of your “Russians” sport British accents.