Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz and Ed Harris.
Stalingrad 1942 and, as the Germans lay siege, Russian morale has given way to sheer terror. Under-equipped and half-starved, Soviet conscripts are forced to make death-or-glory charges across the ruins and are shot by their own side if they attempt to retreat. Among the latest batch of tank fodder is a young Ukrainian, Vassili Zaitsev (Law). He survives an initial assault on an enemy position and during the subsequent retreat establishes himself as a crack shot; killing a handful of German soldiers and saving the life of a propaganda officer named Danilov (Fiennes). Danilov befriends the sniper, recognising that Zaitsev can offer courage to a battered force and give him a leg-up the Russian command ladder. Soon the Ukrainian is transformed from hick to hero, Danilov producing yards of copy on his life and kill tally. But when news filters back to Berlin that Zaitsev's exploits have given the Russians renewed hope, Germany's top marksman Konig (Harris) is dispatched to solve the problem.
While Annaud has found himself in the crosshairs of numerous critics and academics for diluting fact and fable in his depiction of real-life wartime hero Zaitsev, 'Enemy at the Gates' is a worthy addition to the wartime canon. The most expensive movie ever made in Europe, Annaud has recreated the urban battleground in eastern Germany, complete with River Volga and 2,000 bloodied extras. The opening sequence where Zaitsev and his fellow soldiers arrive like cattle in the brunt out city is worthy of every plaudit Spielberg received for the beach landing sequence in 'Saving Private Ryan'. Soldiers in rowboats are mown down by the Luftwaffe overhead, their instincts for self-preservation punished with a 'comrade's' bullet, those 'lucky' enough to reach land taking on Panzers and machine gun posts empty handed.
From the outset Law, as Zaitsev, establishes himself as a highly credible soldier: scared but resourceful and exuding a taciturn intelligence as he picks his way through derelict buildings and underground hideouts. As his character develops, Annaud drops the pace a gear and concentrates on the dynamic between Zaitsev and Danilov, using it as a means to highlight how the educated use the unfortunate and the part propaganda plays in motivating them. At times the dialogue is a little too heavy and forced, but it nevertheless builds Law's stature as a hero and reduces your sympathies for Fiennes - a ploy that sets the audience up for a major shock at the finale.
The film falls away somewhat in the second half when Annaud replaces rifles with heartstrings and dwells on the love triangle between Law, Fiennes and Weisz (playing a university student turned soldier). The idea of giving some emotional background to the three leads is worthy, but it detracts from the cat-and-mouse encounters between Law and Harris (brilliant as a man disillusioned with the war but fascinated by 'the kill') and leaves the audience slightly bored, yearning for the next foray into no-man's land. However, Annaud repays their patience when he swops slush for mud in a Sergio Leone-style ending which sees Zaitsev and Konig emerge into daylight for a one-shot showdown.
Worth the trouble, but make sure to leave the history notes at home.