There’s French, British, German, and Irish production money invested in the European battlefield pic Enemy at the Gates, and why not: On a bookstore shelf, the spine of this muddy epic would read ”Saving Private Ryan for Dummies: A World War II Movie for the Rest of Us.” It’s not audience friendly, of course, to pin Greatest Generation medals on the lapels of soldiers who fought for the triumph of Nazis, and it’s iffy to cheer for Russians, whose status changed from allies to Commies. But the American story has been pretty thoroughly co-opted in recent years by Spielberg, Hanks, Tom Brokaw, et al., so what’s a showman with an eye towards the international market to do?
French filmmaker Jean Jacques Annaud, who most recently skirted pesky fascism in ”Seven Years in Tibet,” hit on an interesting solution: His ”Enemy at the Gates,” cowritten with Alain Godard, is a war movie in which the Nazidom of the Germans and the Commiedom of the Russians is barely noted — a World War II movie deracinated from history and politics. (Not enough, apparently, for local residents who sat glumly through this picture when it was the inexplicable selection to open last month’s Berlin Film Festival.)
”Enemy” acknowledges the cinematic importance of hideous bullet wounds, smashed bodies, and graphic images of death — ”Ryan” has forever raised the stakes on depicting the suffering of grunts — but at its dumbly effective romantic heart, the movie is a simplified ”happy” hero’s story, based on the fame of a real Russian army recruit, Vassili Zaitsev, and immeasurably amped by the grubby beauty of Jude Law in the role.
Zaitsev was indeed an actual national hero, a shepherd from the Urals whose hunting skills were put to patriotic use during the cataclysmic Battle of Stalingrad. In 1942 and 1943, his bull’s eye aim helped rally the desperate, decimated Red Army and demoralize the Nazis who had until then been unstoppable. And Zaitsev is indeed alleged to have faced a showdown with an equally talented Nazi shooter, here turned into German nobleman Major Konig (Ed Harris, playing the part with precisely the kind of modulated rectitude he had no use for in portraying Jackson Pollock). For that matter, Zaitsev is said to have had a love affair with a female soldier, here named Tania and played by Rachel Weisz.
But surely not so schmaltzily. Not backed by an unrelentingly swelling score meted out by ”Titanic” music composer James Horner; not with battles invoking ”Gladiator”; ”Gone With the Wind,” and paintings by J.M.W. Turner; and not with such panoply staged for the sake of filling the frame. The entire Battle of Stalingrad, in which some 800,000 Axis troops and over a million Soviet soldiers died, ultimately, comes down to a class struggle between two handsome men with rifles?
Annaud and cinematographer Robert Fraisse (who also shot ”Tibet”) take great pains with their panoramic, meticulously plotted combat scenes, including an opening sequence with a familiar feel, in which terrified Red conscripts are mowed down as they enter Stalingrad. But the greatest pains are taken over lighting the gold flecked eyes of Law, the burning blue peepers of Harris and, for good measure, the chocolatey brown orbs of Joseph Fiennes, cast in the prop role of Danilov, a political officer in unheroic wire rimmed glasses.
Without Danilov, there’d be no movie style competition for Tania’s affections. Without him, there’d also be no efficient way to establish Zaitsev’s reputation. ”What we need are heroes,” Danilov tells then general Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins with nifty prosthetic makeup), then goes about promoting the modest country boy through the newspaper articles he writes. (The intellectually snobby, politically active schemer and Khrushchev yes man, who the script quite randomly and quite specifically points out as Jewish, may not handle a big gun, but he’s got a mighty pen.)
Fiennes is done no great service by being handed such an all purpose mop of a character with which to clean up such inconvenient odds and ends as, say, politics and religion, and he acquits himself, almost as well as his brother Ralph did spanning the history of Nazism and Communism last year in ”Sunshine.” Harris is handed no prize in Major Konig, either, since most of his evil involves sitting gracefully silent in a wardrobe of precisely cut jackets, waiting for his prey to appear. (As for Weisz, her big reward is a sex scene cunningly obscured by grime and raggedy blankets.)
The one valuable prize for audiences in this war pic Cracker Jack box is Jude Law. Once again the talented Mr. Law makes more of a role than most movies know what to do with. (”The Talented Mr. Ripley” rose to his occasion.) And in that regard, at least, the financiers of Enemy at the Gates are right: International audiences may not want to hear too much about Nazis, but nobody is above the Law.