If any of you are, as I am, a child of one of the "Greatest Generation," you know how reticent these American heroes could be when asked to discuss their war experiences. My own father, a much decorated World War II veteran who ultimately rose to the rank of Major General, would give me dribs and drabs of information through the years, the more trivial, evidently the easier to disclose. He had no qualms in sharing stories of his battalion commanding years that had some humorous elements, notably tales involving one of his conniving, "on the make" Bilko-esque soldiers who became, along with my Dad, fodder for a series of stories by famed war correspondent A.J. Liebling which ran in The New Yorker and were later anthologized in several books (the series in fact was optioned by Fox for a film that was to have starred Paul Newman in the early 1960s, and my father was briefly under contract as an adviser, but alas the film never came to be). But ask one of these guys to relate something "real," like what it is like to shoot someone, or see one of their buddies killed or, perhaps even worse, maimed, and you'd be apt to be greeted by averted eyes and no comment.
Which brings to mind a salient question when thinking of the various combatants in World War II: do our Allies and, perhaps more interestingly, the Axis powers have something akin to the Greatest Generation? You would think that certainly the British and French do (at least those not swept up in the nightmare of Vichy), and the resolute Russians, as well. But what about the Germans? After all, they ended up trying a lot of their "greatest generation" as war criminals. These sorts of thoughts and questions roamed through my head as I watched Enemy at the Gates, a quasi-factual account of two World War II snipers, one Russian (Jude Law) and one German (Ed Harris), out to find each other and terminate with extreme prejudice. It turns out the factual bases for the film are at the very least grossly exaggerated, but that doesn't rob Enemy at the Gates of a sort of voyeuristic quality that allows those of us who came along long after the conflict to get a rifle scope's view of the horrors of war and how it affects various individuals.
Set around the siege of Stalingrad, Enemy at the Gates opens, after a brief prelude, on one of the most disturbing battle reenactments since Saving Private Ryan's thunderous recreation of D-Day. Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) is thrust headlong into a battle, where he needs to cross a river that is being strafed by German fighter planes, and then incredibly where he is handed five bullets and told to find a rifle off a dead person. While all of this happening, scores of people around him are being gunned down either from the air or from the German field artillery and infantry. Making it all the more of a nightmare is the Russians who are trying to fall back are then being shot by their own comrades (this particular aspect of the film was roundly decried by Russian historians).
By some miracle, Zaitsev survives this initial onslaught and then manages to use his five bullets to summarily kill some Nazi elite after the bulk of the battle is thought to have passed (at least by the hapless Germans). That makes Zaitsev a poster boy for Soviet insurgency against the advancing Nazi hoardes. It's easy to forget that in 1942 Hitler's armies seemed invincible; they had already largely conquered Europe and its outlying appendages, and seemed to be marching more or less unstoppably through Russia. (In fact in one of a few missteps the film makes, we get a very brief animated sequence with voiceover showing an inky black stain--that would be the Germans--spreading over the European continent. I had to wonder why they didn't just resort to the "Nazi octopus" that is in so many wartime newsreels. Couldn't this fact of Nazi supremacy have been more artfully handled with a line or two or dialogue?). The Soviets had their backs against the wall, to say the very least, and Zaitsev becomes a rallying point for a nation badly in need of a morale boost.
That then sets up the major conflict of the bulk of the film, as German Major Erwin König (Ed Harris) is sent to hunt down Zaitsev and kill him. We then enter a protracted cat and mouse game between two individuals who personify their nations' wartime goals of ultimate victory. Playing out against all of this is a somewhat awkwardly handled love triangle involving a Jewish Russian woman (Rachel Weisz) and Zaitsev's mentor and quasi-publicist (Joseph Fiennes). Along the way various historical characters appear in cameos, such as a fun turn by Bob Hoskins as a young Nikita Khrushchev.
Enemy at the Gates personalizes this massive conflict very effectively, with some of the most visceral, up close battle sequences in recent memory. Law does excellent work, if occasionally he seems a bit too shell shocked for someone who manages to be so calm and collected in one on one battle. Harris is brilliant as the aristocratic German who can't quite believe he's being bested by a mere Russian peasant. Weisz is as lovely as she always is, in a somewhat underwritten and by the numbers role that allows her to be both heroine and victim simultaneously. The rest of the supporting cast does uniformly good to outstanding work (Fiennes is especially good, and Ron Perlman also shines in his relatively brief role).
What may ultimately slightly hamper Enemy at the Gates' ultimate success is knowing that these alleged facts evidently never quite occurred, at least not this way. That normally wouldn't be a problem--films take liberties wih facts all the time and no one ever really seems to notice. But when a film is staged so brutally realistically and is set forth as largely "real," it robs the impact of the film somewhat to find out it may just be yet another case of audience manipulation. If "fictionalizing" doesn't much matter to you, Enemy at the Gates provides an incredibly exciting thrill ride, with expertly staged unusually "intimate" battle sequences. It also manages to bring an epic story down to the fight between two individuals, managing to simultaneously display both the magnficent courage and really idiotic futility of such conflicts.