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Enemy at the Gates

When Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor arrived in the summer of 2001, the marketing folks at Buena Vista had a pretty clever way to get folks to buy tickets for the three-hour behemoth: They didn't just tease the movie, or try to pitch it — they made it everybody's Patriotic Duty to see it. The U.S. Navy sent an aircraft carrier to Hawaii for the world premiere. And even after many film critics (and quite a few filmgoers) declared Pearl Harbor to be bloated, overlong, and a tad boring, it still earned back its staggering $140 million budget. This noted, consider Jean-Jacques Annaud's Enemy at the Gates, a film that debuted just a few months before Pearl Harbor, and which also happens to be fairly intelligent and entertaining. But its subject-matter (the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad) is grim. The French director is virtually unknown to Americans. The cast is mostly British. The film's central figures are Russian and German, and there are no American characters at all. And Annaud looks kindly upon the Russian people, who refuse to fall under Hitler's jackboot (although he saves a few barbed criticisms for Soviet bureaucrats). But despite the fact that Stalingrad was just as much a turning point in World War II as Pearl Harbor, Normandy, or Iwo Jima, a lot of Americans skipped over Enemy at the Gates, which cost $70 million to produce but only earned $51 million domestically. Fortunately, that $70 million is all on the screen, and the DVD release is a good opportunity for the film to be rediscovered in home theaters everywhere. Jude Law stars in Enemy at the Gates as Sgt. Vassili Zaitsev, a young Russian who grew up in a shepherding family in the Ural Mountains, and who became a skilled marksman at his grandfather's knee, learning to shoot wolves that would prey on the flocks. But when the Nazis drive their way into Russia, reaching Stalingrad on the banks of the Volga River, Vassili is conscripted for service — and it's clear that the Russian government considers their inexperienced foot-soldiers as little more than cannon-fodder. But Vassili meets Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) while hiding from German troops, and after he assassinates five Nazi officers in a matter of seconds, Danilov — a Soviet political officer — decides to make Vassili a hero of his wartime propaganda, getting the young man promoted to sniper duty and publishing accounts of his many kills. And soon Vassili is so successful that the Germans are forced to bring their best sharpshooter, Maj. Erwin Konig (Ed Harris), to Stalingrad in the hopes of killing the Russian.

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Vassili Zaitsev was very much a real person, a rural youth who served in the Red Army. Sources vary, but he has been credited with as many as 400 kills throughout his career, and 149 in the Battle of Stalingrad alone. There also was a Commisar Danilov promoting Zaitsev as a national hero during this time. However, whether there ever was a German Maj. Konig is questionable, and while the story of the Zaitsev / Konig duel has been around for some time, most historians dismiss it as Soviet propaganda designed to boost morale. Nonetheless, the semi-mythical rivalry became Annaud's template for Enemy at the Gates (co-written with Alain Godard), and it's not hard to understand why the story has so much appeal. Be it propaganda or major motion picture, the tale effectively reduces two impersonal armies to two recognizable archetypes — the heroic young warrior defending a battered, impoverished nation, and the aristocratic hunter, brought in to coldly dispatch his human prey. Annaud keeps much of the story focused on his two combatants, and while the subplots involving Joseph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz (as Zaitsev's love-interest) tend to pale by comparison, little expense was wasted to get the settings right. Annaud says he scouted locations in 18 different countries looking for a place that could be made to resemble war-torn Stalingrad. Finding nothing of use, all of the settings were built in Germany. Annaud uses this purpose-built rubble to convey his story — everything from the opening sequences (illustrating the wholesale slaughter of Red Army troops by German artillery) to the military's underground bunkers to the methodical sniper missions. Law and Harris are splendid actors put to good use here, and while Law carries much of the film, it must be noted that Harris probably got the more interesting of the two roles. The supporting cast is likewise excellent, with two standouts being Bob Hoskins as a bullying little Nikita Khrushchev, and Ron Perlman as Zaitsev's wry, steel-toothed sniping instructor Lt. Koulikov, who may hate the Soviets as much as the Nazis. Paramount's DVD release of Enemy at the Gates features a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 Surround. Features include the 19-min. promotional featurette "Through the Crosshairs," offering plenty of film clips and comments, along with a few behind-the-scenes tidbits; "Inside Enemy at the Gates," a 15-minute collection of various cast and crew interviews (with more film clips); and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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