For all the widespread critical acclaim that surrounded the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan (which portrayed the D-Day invasion Normandy landing), little is said about the opening scenes of Enemy At The Gates. Just as lifelike and certainly as compelling, if not more so, Enemy At The Gates paints a vivid picture of the Battle of Stalingrad.
As Nazi forces besiege the city, Russian peasants are shipped across the river in undefended boats. As Luftwaffe swoop down from the skies and rain bullets on the men below, only the mountain of bodies that topple on top of a man can save him from being shot himself. Those who do survive and make it to shore are armed with a single Kalashnikov — but not every man, only every other man. The unarmed men are instructed to follow a man with gun, and when he is killed, to pick up the weapon himself and fight the enemy valiantly.
Sharp-shooting farm boy Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) finds himself thrust into this bloody environment. As part of the initial wave of the Russian advance, he is forced to play dead and hide among the mangled bodies of his countrymen when the Germans annihilate the Russian offensive. Using the bodies as cover, he puts his sniper skills to work, not against the animals he used to shoot for food, but against German officers exposed to his crosshairs. Vassili's brilliant talents are immediately recognized by Commisar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) who ends up befriending the man.
As a powerful figure in the Communist propaganda machine, Danilov uses his skills and connections to transform Vassili into a larger-than-life hero, creating the impression that he is capable of defeating the German army all by himself. It's Danilov's hope that by creating a recognizable face for the war effort, he can raise the morale of the Russian forces and turn the tide against the advancing German armies.
But the relationship between the two men becomes complicated when Vassili and Danilov both fall in love with the same woman, a female soldier named Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz). Will Danilov's jealousies turn him against his friend? The man who made Vassili is certainly capable of tearing him down, and in the Soviet Union, no one is above the wrath of Stalin… Vassili's problems are further accentuated by the announced arrival of his German counterpart, Major Konig (Ed Harris), winner of the Iron Cross and the most celebrated sniper in German history.
Based on the true story of the two real life soldiers, Zaitsev and Konig, Enemy At The Gates sticks closely to the historical record concerning the showdown between these noted wartime figures. Were they mere creations of propaganda? Or was this the individual battle of the century? Only history can make that distinction. Meanwhile, Enemy At The Gates makes a place for itself among the great war dramas of our era. A well-cultivated screenplay, coupled with an unparalleled visual display of the destructiveness of war, makes this a must-see film — both for its educational and historical value as well as its edge-of-your-seat excitement.
Britt's Rating: 9.3/10