Enemy at the Gates

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

ENEMY AT THE GATES

6/10

Germany 2001
dir Jean-Jacques Annaud
scr Annaud, Alain Godard
cin Robert Fraisse
stars Jude Law, Ed Harris, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz
131 minutes

The siege of Stalingrad in 1943 was one of the turning points of World War Two – Stalin’s anxiousness to avoid the taking of “his” city resulting in the rampaging Nazis being finally beaten back. The Russian victory was as crucial as it was pyrrhic, with the city reduced to rubble and a huge body-count. It would seem difficult, then, to make a bad or dull film out of such rich cloth – but Jean-Jacques Annaud comes mighty close with Enemy at the Gates.

Though he’s been a ‘name’ European director for many years, with much hoop-la surrounding the release of pictures like The Lover, Name of the Rose and Seven Years In Tibet, Annaud’s filmography is decidedly humdrum, and it’s possible he’s gained at least a little reflect glory by being confused with Jean-Jacques Beneix. Enemy is a botch-job, a lumbering, big-budget Europudding, complete with dodgy accents and overdubs, that’s fairly watchable but, ultimately, a missed opportunity.

The movie’s main failing is that it aims at too broad an audience. We’re constantly bombarded with superfluous intertitles telling us when and where we are, and there’s an early animated section illustrating the German advance across Europe that any viewer over the age of 12 will find insultingly patronising. But then Annaud immediatedly zooms into the map and the next sequence, showing hapless soliders aboard Russian boats under fire from swooping German aeroplanes, is as impressive as anything in Saving Private Ryan.

Like Ryan, Enemy soon scales down from the epic to the personal, in this case reducing the vast conflict to a one-on-one private duel between the two feuding armies’ deadliest snipers. Zaitsev (Law) is a poor shepherd’s son from the Urals, his long list of important German kills transformed into stirring propaganda by idealistic journalist Danilov (Fiennes). Nazi command, sensing the crucial importance of this figurehead, send in aristocratic Major Konig (Harris) to terminate him. As the opponents gradually close in on each other, matters are complicated by Vitalyev and Danilov both falling for plucky, brainy soldier Tania (Weisz).

Enemy can’t be faulted on the grounds of ambition, and there’s something refreshingly old-fashioned in the way it strives to encompass romance, tragedy, the sweep of history, the psychology of the duel, the power of the media, the creation of myth, class conflict, the nature of heroism, and much else besides. But while the intentions are admirably bold, the execution too often falls short. The movie’s trailer features an innovative way of presenting the horrific realities of battle, with each victim’s moment of death marked by a jarring freeze-frame – an innovation that isn’t carried on into the movie itself, which seldom produces such striking effects.

There are some impressively tense set-pieces, but the script never manages to stitch them into a coherent, satisfying whole. And though it’s a long movie, there’s an unevenness that hints at crucial scenes having been edited out. After building up to the idea that a single bullet may effectively decide the outcome of the siege (perhaps even the whole war), Annaud fudges the climax, firstly by making one of the combatants act in a ludicrously careless fashion, then by spooling too-rapidly forward to the post-victory celebrations.

The script is the fundamental problem – as so often with this creative team, it has the distinct whiff of a hasty translation from the original French. So it’s unfair to blame the actors for their awkwardness with these clumsy lines – Harris has very little to say, but his poise, skill and style enables him to rise above the material’s shortcomings, and he’s a large part of what makes the project worthwhile. But Law, Fiennes and Weisz never settle into their roles, and Ron Perlman – a match for anyone on his day (The Last Supper) – is stranded in a ludicrous role as a motormouth Russki who speaks in a very strange version of an English accent. Not to mention his bizarre metallic teeth and anachronistic metallic quiff.

The end titles sum up Annaud’s general cack-handedness – they’re strikingly designed in the style of Soviet propaganda posters, but whizz by so quickly there’s no hope of seeing who was who, and who did what: a disgraceful betrayal of the ‘credit where it’s due’ principle. Does Annaud notice or care? His Enemy is a film about snipers’ pin-point precision, brought to the screen with all the finesse and grace of an anti-tank bazooka.

7th March, 2001