Enemy at the Gates (2001)

D: Jean-Jacques Annaud
S: Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes

One of the most important elements of any screenplay is its setting. Action must take place somewhen and somewhere before action can take place at all. People live in social environments, not in vacuums. Before you set out to write the greatest of great human dramas, you must know where it happens. The story of Enemy at the Gates takes place during the battle of Stalingrad, one of the most brutal and strategically important battles of the second world war. Soviet soldiers, spurred on by Stalin's decision to keep civilians in the city, fought and died over months of gruelling, close-quarters combat with advancing German troops. Many died, but the battle was won and the Soviet Union survived. Credited screenwriters Alain Godard and Jean-Jacques Annaud (the latter doubles as director and formerly collaborated with Godard on The Name of the Rose and Wings of Courage) seem well aware of the background and context of the action here. Indeed the setting seems to have been selected partly because of its richness. It has also been chosen in more generic terms because of the recent resurgence of movies set during this particular conflict (The English Patient, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, the upcoming Pearl Harbour).

Another reason this story takes place in Stalingrad is because it actually happened there. The events very loosely described and elaborated upon through fiction in Enemy at the Gates actually did take place. Every battle produces its tales and legends, and, as Terence Malick so elegantly reminded us with The Thin Red Line, every man fights his own war. This particular microcosmic tale concerns the struggle between two snipers, one Soviet, one German, and the propaganda battle waged by both sides in promoting their activities. This is a fascinating study of heroism as contrivance; a necessary illusion generated to raise morale. This theme is nothing new in itself of course (it was a long time ago when John Ford used it to deconstruct the mythology of the western in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), but it is an interesting precept upon which to build a story, especially one with this dynamic setting. The film does indeed use the battle of Stalingrad to explore certain questions about the war on the whole, and more particularly the Soviet Union's role in it (hitherto largely neglected in mainstream cinema). The best elements of Enemy at the Gates are those in which Soviet sniper Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Wilde) and Nazi sharpshooter Ed Harris (The Abyss, The Truman Show) pitch their wits and their aims against one another in the rubble of the Soviet city while Soviet political officer Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) manipulates the headlines. There is a rich tale of conflict on several levels here which is unfolded against a physical backdrop which lends an air of authenticity. The basic ingredients for a dynamic and thoughtful study of the themes suggested by this basic configuration of primary characters are all present.

There is another primary character though. Also among the most important elements of selling a movie are demographics. Your screenplay may have integrity, intelligence, and depth, and your setting may be perfect for the story you're trying to tell, but you have to sell it. The buzz word is 'crossover audience', and if you want to make it a movie that's going to recreate the battle of Stalingrad at great expense, it had better be a hit rather than an historical discourse. So you have to pander to generic expectation: aim for a wide audience, get both males and females interested here. That's corporate logic anyway, as is the assumption that a female viewer will react best to a film with handsome young men in it when they're fighting over a beautiful girl.

Who knows just where or how the romantic sub-plot became such a priority here, but it has. The secondary story thread running through this film about men trying to kill each other in the name of their countries involves Rachel Weisz (The Mummy) as a scholarly Soviet woman who befriends both Fiennes and Law. She eventually falls in love with the latter while the former seethes with jealousy. Meanwhile she herself tries to become more directly involved in combat in the name of striking a blow for women at war. So a love triangle is in the offing here, providing Fiennes with motivation for having mixed feelings about the success of his newfound friend on the battlefield. Unfortunately, this story doesn't work, and the film is seriously unbalanced. What should be its strongest aspects (the thematic core, the rich setting) eventually turn out to be the sideshow to the romantic sub-plot.

Yes, there is a reason for this and yes, that reason does go beyond demographic pandering if we are to be fair about it. There is certainly a place for a personal drama in a story about battle in which people fought to protect their loved ones who were literally right beside them on the front lines. In an attempt to ensure female audiences are not offended by having a passive/victim character to care about in such a capacity, Weisz' role has been developed into a tribute to those women who fought on the lines (she's not the only female soldier in the film either). Yet rather than help us to understand the setting of this story and the historical, ethical, and psychological basis of what we are seeing, the fact that this is so much a love story makes the film a generic TV movie-type weepie-of-the-week. The characters' emotions are expended on the love story to an extent which robs the film of its ability to explore their personalities in any other way. The audience is only allowed to experience their lives through the filter of romantic relationships (either negative or positive), making the battle between the snipers a sort of weird man thing where too little emotion seems to be expressed and on which there is insufficient detail. This film would work reasonably well for the mug of tea and warm slippers brigade if it weren't for the fact that people periodically have their brains blown out by high-powered rifles. At the end you are left wondering why the sniper plot was there at all, and why Stalingrad was the setting for the story. This alone is a symptom of its imbalance, and a key to understanding why it is a failure as a film.

It is well crafted in almost every respect and has some very powerful scenes. The setting is exciting and alive with possibilities and there are many fascinations which one wishes the film took the time to unfold. Visually striking, well acted, and initially very involving, it eventually becomes frustrating. Though it begins well, it seems to get more and more distant as it goes, ironically precisely because it is trying to make the action more 'personal' by using the romantic sub-plot. Despite working in scenes which deal with media manipulation, the politics of conflict, the ethical shakiness of Soviet military tactics, and the bravery and heroism which can come from any individual under extreme pressure given the right circumstances, it eventually leaves the viewer only with the impression that the setting was incidental. This can't be right, not when such a monumental tale lies at the heart of the action.

On the level of character, all pretence of social and psychological insight is gradually abandoned in favour of simplistic emotions which support the love story. Though Law and Fiennes are good to start with, exploring complexities of personality and rank which create an interesting dynamic, they eventually pour most of their thespian weight onto reaction shots when Weisz makes her various appearances. By contrast Harris gives another beautifully subtle performance which seems all wrong when it should be just right because, of course, he has no place in the love triangle except as a kind of hovering menace which unites the trio.

Weisz does nothing in particular wrong in herself, but her character is less dignified than she probably hoped. Attempts to provide her with strong personal and social motivation come off like a lazy screenwriter's backstory pasted in by mistake, whereas a similar backstory for the Harris character seems a tantalising insight which you wish the film would explore in more detail. The same is true of the small roles played by Bob Hoskins (as Kruschev) and Ron Perlman (as a Soviet sniper with experience of the ideological contradictions of the regime). Each seems to hold the promise of a useful sub-plot or story tangent which eventually disappears simply because the film doesn't seem interested enough in them.

This is a film which has lost itself along the way. Whether it was on paper, in committee, or in the editing room, Enemy at the Gates lost sight of what it was about and fell back on cliché to sustain it. The result is a frustrating film which will most likely disappoint.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.