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'Enemy at the Gates'

Horrific battle doesn't stop a romantic triangle in 'Enemy at the Gates'

Friday, March 16, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

In "Casablanca," Humphrey Bogart told Ingrid Bergman that "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." The enduring status of the movie may prove otherwise. At any rate, Bogie's sentiments get put to the test again in "Enemy at the Gates," an account of the Battle of Stalingrad that again comes down to a story of two men in love with the same woman.

'Enemy At The Gates'

RATING: R for strong graphic war violence and some sexuality.

STARRING: Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Ed Harris, Rachel Weisz.

DIRECTOR: Jean-Jacques Annaud.

WEB SITE: www.enemyat



The differences, however, are enormous. "Casablanca" came out during World War II, before we knew for sure how it would turn out. That immediacy and uncertainty heightened the emotional power of the film.

But Casablanca was portrayed as a comparative safe haven where people at least had a chance to escape from the Nazis and the war. At Stalingrad, nearly 2 million soldiers on both sides are estimated to have died in the desperate struggle between the Soviets and the Germans. It was one of the most savage battles of this or any war, the beginning of the end for Hitler and therefore a crucial turning point in the fate of the world.

"Enemy at the Gates" director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who co-wrote the screenplay with Alain Godard, makes this clear in his opening sequence, the Russian equivalent of the D-Day scenes in "Saving Private Ryan." Boatloads of reinforcements try to cross the river and land in the city, but are attacked by guns on land and strafed by planes in the air. Those who survive find themselves in a grotesque checkmate where death awaits in every direction.

But as the hill of bodies builds, the film's "three little people" emerge. Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a Communist Party political officer, stumbles into a firefight where he is rescued, after a fashion, by Vassili Zaitsov (Jude Law), who demonstrates his marksmanship by picking off a half-dozen Germans in extreme circumstances.

So when Danilov's boss, a fellow named Nikita Khruschev (Bob Hoskins), demands ideas for building morale, Danilov tells him about Zaitsev. Before long, the propaganda machine is working overtime to make Zaitsev a national hero. The ploy works too well. The Nazis import their own sharpshooter, Major Konig (Ed Harris), to eliminate Zaitsev.

The girl is Tania (Rachel Weisz), a member of a neighborhood militia whom Danilov conscripts as a translator, partly because she knows German and partly because he wants her in a safe job. But she has her own reasons for wanting to kill Nazis, and before long she is back in the trenches with Zaitsev, one of many female soldiers who fought with the Russians.

And so the triangle forms. But Annaud concentrates so much on the personal stories that he begins to lose sight of the bigger picture -- the importance and scope of Stalingrad. The Germans seem so organized and the Russians appear so undermanned that we can't figure out in the end how the Soviets won, and Annaud doesn't really tell us.

He keeps heroically elevating the characters by employing tight closeups, filling the screen with their faces. His camera moves are big, too, a literal form of epic sweep. The film's production values amply communicate the devastation all around.

Tania's presence in the film, and the use of a young boy (Gabriel Marshall-Thompson) as a pawn in the dangerous chess game played by Konig and Zaitsev, offer a link to the civilian population and to how people cope with everyday existence and emotions even in the most appalling conditions.

One might argue that the love triangle shouldn't become so important to the characters that it affects their conduct of the war. On the other hand, I would guess their most fundamental emotional responses become heightened in such circumstances.

The irony is that of the major players, it's the fourth wheel, Harris, who gives the best performance -- controlled, businesslike, impersonal and yet not entirely unsympathetic at first. He seems to carry a secret weight that is reflected in Harris' always-expressive eyes. He's an effective counter to the youthful impetuousness and the dread that lies just beneath the surface in the three principals.

The duel between Zaitsev and Konig is taut and suspenseful. Zaitsev's discomfort at being used as propaganda becomes part of the intriguing subtext concerning the distance between the heroism of the Russian people and the soullessness of their government.

But once the personal stories end, Annaud doesn't seem to know how to finish the film. All of a sudden, the battle is over and Zaitsev tries to find Tania, not knowing whether she is dead or alive. We think we know, but we have to keep remembering it's only a movie, and we have already witnessed the beginning of what promises to be a beautiful friendship.

The problems of three little people do matter. The Battle of Stalingrad mattered more. "Enemy at the Gates" doesn't find the perfect balance, but it juggles enough intrigues to sustain itself.

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