Early in the Battle of Stalingrad, when it looked as if Hitler's forces would deliver a death blow to the Red Army, a Soviet super-sniper named Vassili Zaitsev - a shepherd from the Urals - calmly began to pick off 242 German soldiers. For a dispirited Soviet citizenry, Vassili became a steppe-spanning symbol of proletariat resistance to fascism and devotion to the motherland.
Out of Vassili's exploits, director Jean-Jacques Annaud and his co-writer, Alain Godard, have fashioned "Enemy at the Gates," a magnetic war film.
As William Craig wrote in his non-fiction book of the same name (one of the picture's many sources), Vassili taught his lover and protege, Tania, "how to take cover in the front lines, how to track the enemy through the telescopic sight, and, most importantly, how to wait for hours before firing a single shot that killed."
A Soviet political agitator named Danilov considered Vassili so significant for the Red Army's momentum and morale that he was willing to become a decoy on Vassili's behalf. And Berlin ordered a crack marksman, Major Konig, to leave Germany and enter Stalingrad to stop this sniper's one-man onslaught.
In the movie, the friendship of Danilov and Vassili melodramatizes the use and abuse of propaganda. Thanks to Danilov's reports, Vassili becomes a harbinger of hope - and then, in his prolonged duel with Konig, a target for Soviet anxieties.
With Jude Law as Vassili, Joseph Fiennes as Danilov, Rachel Weisz as Tania, and Ed Harris as Konig, the film reshapes and interconnects these fact-inspired figures. Annaud and Godard don't always succeed in their march toward narrative cohesion. Several confrontations have the awkwardness common to international productions made in English. (This one was shot in eastern Germany with a largely British and American cast.)
Sometimes the tone of a scene is flat or off, or a would-be rousing summary of a major theme (such as the Communist dream of creating a New Man free of greed or envy) flares up out of nowhere. The movie's mainstays are the stalk-and-destroy missions that cause it to resemble a spaghetti western - or maybe a borscht bloodbath. But without its ambitious underpinnings, these virtuoso set pieces wouldn't flicker with emotion.
In "Enemy at the Gates," gravity has entertainment value, at least to those who can respond to wartime fervor. At the screening I attended, acts of utmost self-sacrifice - of soldiers and civilians giving "their last full measure" - made some folks around me groan.
Audiences are so conditioned to expect cynical unreality in action films that any whiff of idealism or passion may just throw them. The same viewers who gasped at conventional suspense high points snickered when Vassili and Tania made love among their sleeping comrades. Actually, it's the sexiest sequence so far this year; it captures the risk and grit of furtive grappling, along with Tania's yearning for meaning and belonging.
Vassili starts out as nature's nobleman: modest, resolute and candid. He grows to embody wised-up honesty. That quality might come off as a Second World War relic, were it not for Jude Law's scruffy glamour in the role, which satisfies the requirements of both escapist fantasy and reality-based legend. Law has such bold, made-for-the-camera looks that it was easy to confuse him with a narcissistic pretty boy instead of an actor portraying one in "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Law is unmistakably an actor - and a star - in "Enemy at the Gates."
He smartly seizes on any hint of insecurity or weakness and plays this champion quietly, with emotions tightly reined in. Vassili is frank to a fault, too quick to wonder whether Konig is a better sniper than he. But is there any character more refreshing in our showboat era than a hero who doesn't know his own strength? Law has the same valor as an actor that Vassili has as a sharpshooter. His pinpoint control is rarely self-congratulatory.
He's both helped and hurt when the screenplay meshes Vassili to Fiennes' jumpy, increasingly manipulative Danilov. At first, Vassili sees the wisdom of Danilov's propaganda campaign; for a while, the two team up to maintain the sniper's image.
But the filmmakers err when they concoct a romantic triangle with Danilov pining unrequitedly for Tania. It diminishes Danilov and taints his motives without illuminating the tension between a political intellectual like him and a man of action like Vassili. Of course, Weisz imbues Tania with so much intelligence and ardor that sexual competition seems inevitable.
The film is far steadier when it focuses on the vendetta between Vassili and Harris' meticulous aristocrat, Konig. As Annaud cuts from Harris' keenly calibrated glare to Law's patient gaze, "Enemy at the Gates" becomes a quartet for eyeballs. All the key action scenes play off telltale visual clues, such as the sun's reflection on a muzzle.
Annaud moves swiftly and gracefully among close shots and panoramas; as a result, he stays rooted in the single-warrior combat without losing sight of the larger picture. Near the start, he crafts a brilliantly turbulent re-creation of Soviet reinforcements landing at Stalingrad and charging into Red Square. This director doesn't flinch from depicting brutal Soviet tactics: Red officers shoot retreaters and offer guns to only half the soldiers. The scene has a leveling, iconoclastic impact.
Annaud, though, doesn't intend to pronounce the absolute word on the event, as Spielberg did in the pummeling "Saving Private Ryan." Annaud lets the audience follow Law's eyes through the rubble, into settings as factual yet dadaistic as a gutted department store where a rifle pokes from a rack of overcoats behind a bust of Lenin.
At its best, "Enemy at the Gates" shows terror in a yellow sandhill, fear in a handful of shards.
'Enemy at the Gates'
Starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Ed Harris and Rachel Weisz.
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
Rated R (graphic violence and some sexuality)
Released by Paramount
Running time 128 minutes
Sun score ***