Thursday, July 07, 2005

Enemy at the Gates (2001)

Enemy at the Gates (2001)

I've now watched this movie four or five times, and it continues to impress me with each viewing. Criticisms that it does not accurately depict the battle of Stalingrad are missing the point. The movie doesn't purport to tell the whole story of the epic battle of the greatest land war ever known (and we hope humanity will ever endure) in terms of a historical recapitulation of this happened, then that happened, and so forth. It rather instead attempts to take this epic, incredibly difficult story and reduce it to the battle between two men, two individuals, two snipers - the ultimate individualists and cold-blooded killers. That the movie has both interesting personalities, a gripping action arc, and still manages to encapsulate the great sense of apocalyptic struggle that was the combat of World War II makes it all the more remarkable. It manages to be epic through a simple love triangle and a simple contrast between the simple but indomitably optimistic Zaitsev and the sophisticated but world-weary Koenig.

There is not any particular sympathy for either the (Communist) Russians or the (Nazi) Germans generated in the film.The movie opens up with Russians massacring their own troops who have the temerity for retreating from an attack cut to pieces by the Germans, where only a fraction of their force are even armed. The character of Koulikov, an expert sniper sent to provide cover for Zaitsev in his duel with Koenig, through the simple story of how his Communist masters quickly turned on him ably sums up the arbitrary terrors of the Stalin years. The Nazis in turn are shown sending a prisoner to his death at the hands of his Russian comrades and engaging in other personal atrocities that demonstrate their ruthless inhumanity without resorting to the typical film stereotypes. (The most effective of these comes at the film's climax, epitomizing the strange humanism of German culture as corrupted by the Nazi sense of utility which was ultimately so amoral.) There's an economy here in the storytelling which others would do well to imitate.

For the most part, the ordinary German and Russian soldiers are shown for what they were -- suffering cannon fodder, the two clashing (and discreditable) ideologies that cause their suffering distant in the background. Yet we manage to get a sense of why each man fights -- the sense of duty that devolves (or evolves) into a sense of loyalty to one's comrades and ultimately just to the man (or woman) right next to them. Koenig becomes more and more isolated -- the lone eagle, or wolf, as it turns out in the film's opening metaphor -- even as Zaitsev develops a complicated set of supporting relationships.

The heroism of Zaitsev develops in an interesting contrast to the propaganda version of Zaitsev created by his friend, the educated political commissar Danilov. Danilov's genuine willingness to lay his own life on the line, his desire to make his own contribution in what he clearly sees holistically as a grand, epic battle on which the whole fate of the country is clear from the first scene where he and Zaitsev meet in a no-man's land filled with the corpses of their comrades. Yet Danilov degrades, gradually, his personal loyalty being subsumed by his ambition and the success, and Zaitsev becomes more a tool for him than the friend who saved his life. The ends of politics become a justification to Danilov for personal betrayal.

Caught between Zaitsev and Danilov is Chernova, who has the education and skills to be an intelligence officer or political commisar -- and seemingly the perfect match in background for Danilov -- but the heart and desire to emulate Zaitsev and become a sniper. She moves from Danilov's world back into Zaitsev's in a way that is almost a barometer of how the spirit of the Russian soldiers ended up winning the day in spite of, not because of, the brutal ideologies of their government.

The duel is unpredictable, yet also predictable in a way, and without giving out a spoiler let's just say that even if you can guess the outcome, it's still worth watching for the suspense of exactly how it's played out.

What I really admire about this film when all is said and done that despite the pseudo-intellectual critical analysis I've described above, it's just a taut story that moves you along without having to really see the whole big epic sweep of themes.

One incidental note: complaints in other reviews about the "lack of accents" by the various British and American actors is really missing the ponit about doing a film in English about Russians and Germans made by a French director. Not resorting to the fakery of movie conventions of trying to do fake accents for the bad guys (and usually American accents for the good guys) simply allows the actors to act, and without any context for the typical viewer as to what an educated or peasant accent might be for a German or Russian, their own voices come across somehow more authentically.

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