Here’s a mixed bag of European war movie that is trying to be Saving Private Ryan in its impressive opening scenes, but looks as if it realises it doesn’t have the budget and so scales back the action to concentrate on two lone snipers. One German, one Russian. It’s set during the battle of Stalingrad, in which more than two million people died – yes, two million – and so the decision makes some logistical sense, even if it shortchanges the Russians and their epic level of sacrifice. The fact that it does that is what got the goat of a lot of historians masquerading as film critics, who suggested that the film mocks the memory of the fallen. But wars are won by many individual acts of selflessness, which is where Jude Law, playing a Russian peasant, and Ed Harris, as a German aristocrat called König, come in. Both are expert marksmen, the former learnt to shoot to protect his flocks from wolves, the latter hunting deer on his estate. So as each tries to get the other guy in his sights in the burnt out and bombed out buildings of a once great city, we have a good-guy-versus-bad-guy story (the Russians being, unusually for an English-speaking war film, the goodies), a story where the antagonism is class-based, and a further one, if we’re looking really hard, that’s survival versus fun, perhaps even nature versus nurture.
Do we need a love story too? Because on top of this fascinating mano a mano struggle director Annaud (who is producer, director and co-writer) straps a romance, presumably in the hope of turning Enemy at the Gates into a date movie. Enter Rachel Weisz as a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s madness who becomes the apex of a love triangle between our Vassili (Law) and Commisar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) a party apparatchik who is turning reports on Vassili’s marksmanship into mood-bolstering propaganda. The answer to the “do we need a love story” question is no, of course, and it is to an extent the undoing of a film that is absolutely at its best when concentrating on the cat and mouse between slightly feral Vassili and König, his lordly nemesis.
© Steve Morrissey 2013