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[whitespace] Stanlingrad, Mon Amour

'Enemy at the Gates' uses the apocalyptic battlefield as a background for a gunslingers' duel

By Richard von Busack

HAVING THE DIGITAL WHEREWITHAL to restage the Battle of Stalingrad is scary enough. What's more frightening is the existence of filmmakers willing to replay it all for your amusement. Jean-Jacques Annaud's Enemy at the Gates is technically impressive in all the worst ways--it slows to show every head exploding, every limb flying, as part of a search for realism. Yet the realism is defied by the most standard of the standard wartime romance plots. The film is based, apparently very loosely, on a true story collected in William Craig's book on the German army's siege of Stalingrad in 1942. It's the story of a sniper. In most accounts of a war, these sharpshooters are the most hated of soldiers--though their solitude and high angle and telescopic views of battle are all dynamically right for the movies. A new arrival at the front, Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law, too pretty for the role) is a rural shepherd from the mountains who saves the life of a propaganda officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). On orders from Krushchev himself (played by Bob Hoskins) the commissar turns the boy rifleman into a hero. Now Zaitsev is exposed to the embarrassment of celebrity. Worse, the propaganda draws out icy Aryan supermarksman Major Koenig, played by Ed Harris. In the meantime, Tania, a pretty militia woman (Rachel Weisz), attracts both the sniper and Danilov the propagandist.

Weisz faces the most elementary test of an actress--can you wring an audience's heart with a war atrocity story? She can't. And Hoskins' Krushchev breaks the promise of excitement that his appearance makes. Here's the Soviet who later would dismantle the worst of Stalinism--at much risk to himself--and he just seems like a pompous glad-hander. (The man was nothing if he wasn't colorful, and both Enemy at the Gates and Thirteen Days--which ignored him completely--could have used more of his presence.)

Most of Enemy at the Gates is gunfighting between two men in the traditional Western-movie vein: a peace-loving young rancher vs. a killing machine from out of town. Despite the high-quality technical re-creations of the blasted city, especially a wiped-out department store, Enemy at the Gates bypasses some of the most dramatic stories of the battle. Hitler's army is represented by Harris, who commits a fresh murder every 20 minutes so we don't forget that he's the villain. In the German-made movie Stalingrad, the tendency to make the war a German tragedy was dubious enough. Harris takes the opposite approach, reviving the old-time Nazi-movie Prussian cyborg.

The technology's remarkable, though I'd leave the historical inaccuracies for the experts to underscore. (A war-buff friend demands to know: what was up with those Stukas?) The gunfight in the tractor factory does work as potboiler entertainment; I can't remember which Western it was where the hero blinded the rifleman with a mirror, but Annaud stages this redo of that scene well. Still, Enemy at the Gates is silly in all the old ways, from the hushed narration at the beginning--"Europe was crushed under the German jackboot"--to the gesture of selfless renunciation at the end. Stalingrad wasn't just the place where the Soviets slammed the Nazi menace to a halt; it was also a taste of the Mad Max-style wars of the future, in house-to-house fighting in post-apocalyptic weather. Is Stalingrad the right background for a movie about the disillusionment of celebrity? I question using the nightmare battle as voyeuristic entertainment, and the sanity of putting an upbeat ending on it.

Enemy at the Gates (R; 128 min.), directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, written by Jean-Jacques Annaud and Alain Godard, photographed by Robert Fraisse, and starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Ed Harris and Rachel Weisz, plays at selected theaters.

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From the March 21-28, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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