Enemy at the Gates On DVD
Those who missed this war film in theaters—ie, just about everyone—will be pleasantly surprised when they slip this disc into the player. Enemy at the Gates is an intelligent, well-acted, and, above all, suspenseful telling of a largely neglected slice of World War II: Germany's siege of Stalingrad. That director Jean-Jacques Annaud was able to paint both an epic battle and a very solitary one between two sharpshooters is the film's biggest strength.
It's 1942, and the Russian Army has been decimated. With only the city of Stalingrad standing between the Nazis and the oil fields of Asia, the Russians must find some reserve of strength and pride to ensure the survival of the Motherland. That resolve, deeply embedded in the Russian citizenry and soldiery, is personified by Vassili Zaitzev (Jude Law), a reluctant but highly skilled sharpshooter who has been regularly picking off Nazi officers. The defending army is desperately in need of a hero, and Zaitzev is elected—thanks to the propaganda being churned out by a Russian political officer (Joseph Fiennes).
Zaitzev's notoriety eventually crosses enemy lines, however, and the Nazis dispatch a legendary marksman of their own, Major Konig (Ed Harris), to terminate Zaitzev, both to save their dwindling ranks of officers and to break the back of the Russian Army. The intimate one-on-one battle between two gifted snipers is played out amid the havoc of the two sides' epic battle. There's a love triangle involving Zaitzev, the political officer, and a female soldier (Rachel Weisz) thrown in to satisfy Hollywood's need to attract couples, but this is a war film first and last, replete with pyrotechnics, lots of small arms, and artillery fire.
Law and Harris slip into their personae like service sidearms into well-worn holsters. Law exhibits sufficient poster-boy looks and humble demeanor to be convincing as a rank-and-file soldier who suddenly finds himself the center of attention—both good and bad. And Harris rises above some of the hokey dialogue, delivering lines like "He isn't dead . . . because I haven't killed him yet" with an arrogance befitting his despicable character. The only regret is that this film about Nazis fighting Russians is populated almost exclusively by British actors who don't even attempt to affect accents for their characters. Since the events depicted are based on historical incidents, it would have been nice to have that additional level of authenticity.
Perhaps most compelling is the way the film delves into the art of the sniper, a subject seldom addressed in any detail in movies. Here we get a good sense of the sniper's job: to sit around, hidden for hours or days on end, awaiting the singular moment when the prey finally steps into his crosshairs. Patience under extreme stress is as necessary a skill as marksmanship. It's all conveyed here.
While Enemy at the Gates could have supported a full package of extra material, we get "only" a pair of behind-the-scenes documentaries and nine deleted scenes totaling about 12 minutes of footage. The first featurette, "Through the Crosshairs," runs 20 minutes and is the typical studio promotional fluff, but does contain interesting footage revealing some of the challenges of filming a massive battle in a location that no longer exists. The second piece, "Inside Enemy at the Gates," is a compilation of interviews with all the principals and director Annaud. Much of the time is spent on training with rifles, but the actors also talk of their great respect for one another.
The nine deleted scenes are all worthwhile, and help round out some of the characters. Clearly cut to accelerate the film's pace, they're well worth the time it takes to scan them.
Paramount puts its best foot forward with this disc, serving up a sharp, beautiful picture that seems to pull viewers into the intense battle scenes. The 5.1-channel soundtrack adds to the you-are-there feeling, with rifle cracks, whizzing bullets, and streaking Luftwaffe planes combining to create an aggressive sonic experience. It also does justice to James Horner's ominous score, which calls to mind his music for the battle sequences of Star Trek II.
While it's no Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates is a solid middle-size epic that sheds light on a forgotten battle and some of the men who played an instrumental role in the outcome of the war. Don't miss it again.