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Enemy at the Gates (2001) starstarstar

Reviewed 2001-08-22
: The story takes place in World War II, during the battle for Stalingrad which, should it falls, will mean the collapse of the whole country. The Germans and Russians are fighting over every block, leaving only ruins behind. Second Look ReviewThe Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) stalks the Germans, taking them out one by one, thus hurting the morale of the German attackers. The political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) publishes tales of his exploits in order to give his countrymen some hope. But Vassili feels he cannot live up to those stories, which take on the stature of legend. As a plot complication, Vassili and Danilov fall in love with the same Jewish woman, Tania (Rachel Weisz -- pronounced "vice"), who is a soldier and an interpreter. Then, from Germany, comes the master sniper König (Ed Harris) to boost German morale by putting an end to the skilled Russian sniper.

I thought Enemy at the Gates was pretty good. It is interesting that I had to choose to root for Communists against Nazis! The opening was bloody and super-realistic -- perhaps more than it needed to be or I needed to see -- but the set decoration and action overall were great. Joseph Fiennes (last seen in the 1998 Shakespeare in Love) gave a particularly sensitive portrayal of the commissar with a conscience. Weisz is easy on the eyes and offers more depth and sensitivity in her characterization here than in the two other films of hers I've seen -- The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001). Ed Harris, as Zaitzev's opponent -- and the crux of the real conflict in this true story of a war between two snipers amidst a war between two nations -- made a particularly slithery, cool, professional Erwin König. He does something particularly nasty, but in character, toward the end of the film. Bob Hoskins made a great Khrushchev, though I'm sure he didn't look in 1942 the way we remember him from the 1950s! But Jude Law stands out as the hero with self doubt, who nevertheless lives up to his duty.

The director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, also made Quest for Fire (1981) and The Name of the Rose (1986), both of which I enjoyed. The script was written by Annaud and Alain Godard and includes no Americans (except actors). And the Russians have English accents! Though it is of similar caliber (excuse the pun), this is not another Saving Private Ryan (1998), though that film certainly has raised the bar on battle realism!

I had only a couple of cavils with the film. One was about the revenge Danilov took against Zaitsev for loving the girl he wanted but couldn't have: after building him up into a hero, Danilov then published articles tearing him down, but nothing every comes of that. The other cavil is that we get to see so little of Rachel Weisz's beautiful butt in her (necessarily discrete) lovemaking scene with Jude Law! But I heartily recommend Enemy at the Gates.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.