Set during over the course of several months of the second World War, Enemy at the Gates is a movie about the psychological battle between two snipers on opposite sides of the battlefield. In a rare turn of events, America is not involved. This all happens at the Battle of Stalingrad, and takes place between the Soviet Union and the Nazis. No, there isn’t really a battle involving ideologies; it’s far more about these two men than it is about the countries the men are fighting for.
The opening scene depicts the war field in a brutal and vicious way, something that will be maintained for its entirety. We see how the Soviet soldiers were forced to go to battle, and anyone who retreats is labeled a traitor and shot. It appears that the army is so dead-set in its beliefs that it would rather lose a man than see them desert the force. These are frightened, terrified men, and they’ve been forced into battle. It’s no doubt who we’re supposed to root for, even though the higher-ups in the army are not portrayed well.
The lead is a foot soldier named Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), who, after seeing his comrades slaughtered around him, picks up a gun and takes out five German soldiers. Another man, commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), witnessed the feat, wrote about it in the paper, and Zaitsev is labeled a hero, and is promoted to a sniper. He becomes something of a legend among both camps, and it forces the Nazi party to bring in an elite sniper of their own, Major Erwin König (Ed Harris). So begins a duel between two highly talented men, one in which a single false move will result in a loss.
The whole film is filled with tension, even before König is brought in. There isn’t a single scene where a character isn’t in danger, or at least could be in danger, which results in a nail-biter of a movie. War films sometimes overlook this, and make the characters feel safe more often than they realistically should, while building up to big, thrilling scenes. Not this one. Enemy at the Gates never lets up, and that’s one of its key strengths.
Where it isn’t quite as strong is in the forced love story between Zaitsev and a woman named Tania (Rachel Weisz). It feels like it was put in simply to say that there is one. I didn’t mind it too much, because it’s well-done and has good actors with strong chemistry, but it didn’t feel organic, and it didn’t add a whole lot to the film. Trimming it would have made the focus even more on the battle between the two men, and it would have aided the running time. All of the emotional impact that comes from it is already included, and it ended up feeling superfluous, for the most part.
However, it rarely takes away the impact of the absolutely amazing battle of wits and skills between Zaitsev and König. This involves a lot of waiting around, as a battle of this nature should, but it is absolutely thrilling. By this point, Zaitsev is an endearing character, and you really care about him. But you know he’s outmaneuvered, and is of lesser skill than his opponent, and knowing this makes everything so tense.
That’s not to take anything away from König, who isn’t a typical villain. He’s sympathetic, too, and also becomes more interested in the battle against a fearsome enemy than against someone from a competing nation. For both characters, it’s more about beating the one person than an entire nation. Sure, that person is a symbol and defeating him will be a great victory, but it’s not about that; these two people are competing almost for the thrill of it, and neither of them will give up until the other one is dead.
It’s a horrifying film, as many movies about wars are, but there’s a kind of beauty and magnificence to its proceedings. Watching these two men, as is watching anyone so prolific at their trade, is so engaging that you almost forget about the war that’s taking place around them. The focus is so intently on these two skilled men that, despite the images surrounding them, that we’ve been shown from the very beginning, where anyone can die at any time, you are appreciative of the battle between the two of them, and almost appreciate it as its own art form.
This is all helped out by strong performances turned in by everyone in the cast. I think that, because they were allowed to use their natural accents instead of trying to put one on, they were allowed to dedicate more energy to the drama of the performance. They’re all charismatic and likable, but they’re also deep and manage to make their own characters out of potential archetypes. Even Weisz, as a love interest and nothing more, shines, taking her potential throwaway role and making it worth keeping. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t trimmed.
Enemy at the Gates is an absolutely thrilling and satisfying film, one that you can’t stop forgetting about after it ends because of the terrifying war that takes place in the background and also because of the haunting battle of wits and skills between the two snipers on either side of the war. Even the love story, which does, admittedly, feel forced in, works because it doesn’t distract from the main idea and because the actors involved are so committed and have such strong chemistry. This is a movie worth seeing.