Enemy at the Gates

Hotel rooms are cheap in Vietnam at the moment. I'll tell you why: low season, poor economy, SARS. Rooms that would normally go for USD20 are being rented out for half that, and you can probably bargain it down even more.

For USD10 you get a nice room with air-conditioning, telephone, hot water and satellite TV. You can get rooms for USD3-5, but with none of the luxuries, and for an extra RM20, I couldn't really complain too much.

Anyway, the whole point of the last few paragraphs is to explain why I was watching Enemy at the Gates last night. When you're given satellite TV, you might as well use it.

Enemy at the Gates is a well-crafted film about snipers at the battle for Stalingrad. It falters somewhat near the end, but most of the movie is enjoyable enough, and provides food for thought at moments.

Vasily Zaitsev (Jude Law) is a young man from the Urals, thrust into the heat of battle at Stalingrad. Russia is on its last legs and this city is the final barrier preventing the Nazis from reaching the Balkan oil fields, and subsequently, the rest of Russia.

Through a combination of luck and skill, Vasily distinguishes himself as a master sniper, and impresses Commisar Danilov, a political officer. The latter comes up with the idea of lionising Vasily as a national hero to inspire the troops to fight what is otherwise a losing battle for the Russians.

All goes well at first, as the pair catch the attention of Nikita Kruschev (then a general), with all the glory that comes with it, but the relationship sours as they both vie for the hand of the same girl, Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz). Added to this, the Nazis decide to fight fire with fire and send an expert marksman of their own, Major Konig (Ed Harris), to take care of Vasily.

The whole middle portion of the movie where Konig stalks Vasily who stalks the German in turn is absorbing. It makes it clear that these are two men who are masters of their craft trying to outwit each other. After all, being a sniper is more about using your brain than brawn, and a lot of the movie is about manoeuvring rather than meeting the enemy head on.

This contrasts well with the Soviet military doctrine at that time which was basically "we have the numbers, let's just throw bodies at them until they give up".

The treatment of the Russian love triangle is quite well handled. Danilov feels he is superior to Vasily, and there's no reason why an educated girl like Tania shouldn't take advantage of his offers of a safe job away from the battleground, and him as well. An interesting situation develops as Vasily is put into more and more danger and may lose his life, which would work very well for the political officer's romantic interests. It's handled quite well, and isn't too over-handed - all's fair in love and war, they say.

The movie is beautiful in places, with the art department taking enough care with attention to detail. The scenes within war-torn Stalingrad convey the claustrophobia in fighting urban battles and the bleak surroundings reflect the mood of the beleagured city.

There is also the grim representation of war at its ugliest when it pushes men to things that otherwise we could never imagine. It is frightening that the horrors of war were more real and matter-of-fact that the heroics of Vasily, which was very clearly exagerrated anyway as propaganda.

I was happy to finally see a movie with Russians and Germans who don't speak English throughout with a Russian or German accent. Instead, the Russians speak British English, while the Germans speak a very terse and precisely-worded American accent. After all, they're meant to be speaking Russian and German respectively, and I'm sure they don't do that with an accent.

The acting is pretty good, with solid performances from all the main leads. I especially like Rachel Weisz's gutsy performance that showed the iron will underneath.

My only gripe with the movie I suppose is the ending and the cop-out with Ed Harris's character. Here is a man equal to Vasily in skill, and a pretty cool character to boot, but the movie feels it has to justify an ending with heroes by painting him clumsily as a villain at the end. It could have worked as two men trying to fight with honour in an otherwise brutal war, but I guess they chose to cut out the complexity with "Russians good, Germans bad" at the end.

All in all, a movie worth watching and thinking about, even if they did cop-out at the end.


posted on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - permalink
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