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Nazis at the gates

Big World War II movies are hard to do, particularly on the Eastern Front. But here comes a hefty-budgeted European war film, financed by German-English-Irish money, with a French director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, British stars, Joseph Fiennes, Jude Law, and Rachel Weisz. But are they enough to convey the awful horror that was the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the war’s titanic conflicts? The film reflects a wartime Western attitude in which victory is a certainty and defeat unimaginable. “Enemy at the Gates” is set in 1942-1943 during the Battle of Stalingrad (later renamed “Volgograd” by Khrushchev after Stalin’s death), when besieged Soviet troops withstood the assault of Hitler’s until-then invincible armies.

The story claims to be “inspired” by the true story of Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) a shepherd boy from the Urals who became a celebrated Russian sniper. In Annaud’s film, Vassili’s rise to fame begins when a Soviet propaganda specialist called Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) takes note of Zaitsev’s marksmanship and realizes he is just the kind of hero the Russian people need to keep their hopes high for victory.

Thanks to Danilov’s accounts in the Soviet press, Vassili is transformed into a military sniper-superstar who attracts the admiration of a Red heroine, the beautiful Tania (Rachel Weisz).

Vassili becomes such a legend that the Germans, who have their own military super-stars, dispatch one of them — the elegant and aristocratic Major Koenig (Ed Harris) — to take Vassili out and, while Vassili and Koenig battle for Stalingrad, Vassili and Danilov battle for the love of Tania. Danilov and Tania are both Jewish incidentally. Marginally implausible, and although not central to the plot, this strikes a pious note.

Antony Beevor, author of a critically acclaimed account of the Battle of Stalingrad, says that the film is “bad history,” that Major Koenig (Harris) never existed and was an invention of Soviet propagandists.

According to Beevor, the film contains a number of other historical inaccuracies. The film shows dozens of tanks lined up outside the headquarters of General Paulus, the German commander at Stalingrad. Beevor writes that there were no tanks at Stalingrad, which is the reason the battle was won by the Russians, because they were able eventually to encircle the entire German Sixth Army.

Meanwhile, on the docks at Stalingrad, under heavy shelling, people run wildly in every direction and men are handed rifles and thrown into battle, forced to head directly into German fire. Those who turn back are machine-gunned by their own superiors. At Stalingrad, thousands of untrained and poorly armed soldiers are hurled at the invading Germans, making for a huge and bloody turmoil, brilliantly captured by the camera.

The German airplanes appear almost too flimsy to carry out their bombing. Yet the sweep of the big screen remains impressive — with all the commotion and violence — and the sense of so many people dying in the chaos of the embattled city. For Stalingrad is not merely under siege, it has been occupied and we see it being torn up: Ducts, sewers, and interiors of dwellings spilled out into one vast common rubbish heap with mud and rubble everywhere. This is a production that cost a reported $85 million and looks it.

But Annaud makes it seem as if the Battle of Stalingrad — and perhaps the entire war — hung on the sniper duel between Vassili and Germany’s Major Koenig, which is a little hard to accept. But, even without its stars, the scale and the horror of the movie’s sweep dazzle the audience. Nor does the film entirely eliminate boy-girl relationships, for we see Vassili and Tania embracing partially nude amid the wartime rubble. And they live to tell the tale. A happy end, it would seem, is everything.