Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Watching "Quest for Fire" director Jean-Jacques Annaud's World War II spectacle "Enemy at the Gates" reminded me of the "Sgt. Rock" comic books that I used to peruse as an adolescent when I was growing up in Mississippi during the Cold War years of the 1960s. Those fiendishly duplicitous Nazis in "Sgt Rock" always set up ingenious ambushes, concealing themselves in places where the unsuspecting American G.I.s would least expect to spot them, such as either disabled tanks or the rubble of fallen buildings. "Enemy at the Gates" keeps that Nazi skullduggery intact. Although French director Annaud, whose credits include "Seven Years in Tibet" and "In the Name of the Rose," condemns the Nazi, he goes to heavy-handed lengths near the end to rekindle our antipathy to National Socialism. You'll know the scene when you see it. I hate movie critics would give away too much of a movie plot.

Anyway, the aristocratic Nazi Major Konig (Ed Harris of "Stepmom") dispatched to kill our heroic Red Army sniper disguises a department store mannequin in a gray Wehrmacht uniform with a rifle. Talk about symbolism!? Weren't the Wehrmacht supposed to be the good guys, and the Nazis the evil villains? Although this large-scale, $80 million, World War II epic glorifies the marksmanship of real-life Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law of "Cold Mountain") who bagged 300 Germans, Annaud condemns the Soviet ideology that Vassili defended. At the same time, no matter how magnificent the set design, costume design, and overall production of the film remains, "Enemy at the Gates" is painfully predictable, though far better than its American counterpart "Saving Private Ryan." Indeed, while both films feature snipers, "Enemy" achieves far greater realism and far less sentimental loquacity than Steven Spielberg's highly-overrated D-Day saga. Nevertheless, "Saving Private Ryan" and "Enemy at the Gates" both celebrate the supremacy of the individual.

Anybody that marches into "Enemy at the Gates" with the impression that the Nazis will triumph is hopelessly naïve, so Annaud's cinematic strategy of making this movie into a cat-and-mouse duel between sympathetic snipers falters in the last half-hour when the Nazi foe unveils his murderous colors. Ultimately, "Enemy" shares more in common ideologically with director Howard Hawk's patriotic 1941 film biography about World War I Tennessee sharpshooter Alvin York in "Sergeant York." York captured hundreds of German troops single-handedly by using his sniping skills in World War I. Warner Brothers produced "Sergeant York" during the tumultuous days of 1941 to drum up patriotism among Americans and give them somebody to emulate. Similarly, Vassili rise to prominence as a Red Army war hero occurs when a young Communist political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes of "Elizabeth" and "Shakespeare in Love") suggests the way to inspire morale during among the infantry is to reinvent Vassili Zaitsev as a hero for the army to worship. One of the problems about being a film critic and film lover is that you spot some things that nobody else would care about, like Danilov's "Battleship Potemkin" eyewear. Real cute, Jean-Jacques.

Anybody that has read anything about the brutal battle of Stalingrad in 1942 knows that it emerges as one of the savage battles of all time. Imagine Dante's "Inferno" as the genuine article, and you have a fair idea how devastating the fighting was. "Enemy's" opening scenes show literally thousands of young Soviet troops piling aboard filthy railroad cattle cars and freighted to the war-ravaged city on the Volga where most would die. As "Enemy" unfolds, our protagonist, young Vassili Zaitsev, finds himself among scores of comrades as their officers issue rifles to every other soldier while those soldiers-in-between receive a mere magazine clip of bullets. Basically, the Soviets hurled more men into combat than they had rifles to arm! Sounds rather anti-Soviet to me. If an individual survived, he had to participate in the gory art of battlefield salvage. In other words, taking rifles off the dead! Anyway, Vassili charges off courageously into the fray with a fistful of bullets and bides his time until he can acquire a rifle. ("Enemy" loves to flashback to childhood memories of Vassili in the snowy Urals lining up a wolf in the cross-hairs as it attacks a staked out horse. The outcome of this flashback is pretty predictable, too.) Meanwhile, Soviet officers gun down without qualm any infantrymen that retreat from the Nazi horde. Neither side emerges from "Enemy" as white-washed as the American G.I.s in "Saving Private Ryan." The Soviets aren't quite as diabolical as the Nazis. After all, remember who won World War II. When we first meet Comrade Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins of "The Long Good Friday"), he forces a high-ranking Soviet general to commit suicide because he cannot repel the Nazi invaders. Usually, this scene appears in only Nazi war movies where suicide is deemed the simple way out.

Basically, "Enemy" chronicles not only the cat-and-mouse showdown between Nazi Major Konig and Vassili, but also a love triangle with Vassili, Danilov, and a beautiful Jewish girl, Tanya (Rachel Weisz of "The Mummy") whose parents died at the hands of the Nazis. Indeed, Annaud manages successfully to blow soap bubbles amid bullets. Imagine "Jules and Jim" in Stalingrad and you know what to expect. The outcome is a predictable as who survives the duel, but Annaud gives it the kind of noble gravity that it requires to rupture your tear ducts.

Guys who like war movies where you can see authentic vintage bombers dropping loads on the battleground, especially the Junkers 87, aka "Stuka" dive-bombers, will love this war movie despite its romantic interludes. Had Annaud gone against the grain on certain plot elements and characters, "Enemy at the Gates" might have qualified as a contemporary classic.

No comments: