Well over a year ago I was made aware that a movie would be released based on the dramatic epic that has built up surrounding the duel between Vassili Zaitsev and a German sniper sent to put paid to his work at Stalingrad. During that period I often wondered how realistic or accurate the film might be. Knowing the cloud of fog that surrounds the story, both with historians and participants, I waited in anticipation for the film's delayed release. In March of 2001 it finally hit the theaters and I happily skipped out of work for an afternoon to catch a preview.
The result? Two fold. First, I have to rate the movie as a success as a work of artistic excellence. The cinematography is simply outstanding. It puts you in the midst of one of the most horrid events in modern history and exposes you to the human carnage and waste that was the Russian front in WWII. Easily as gripping as another excellent release on WWII, Saving Private Ryan, this film is even more shocking in its dedication to the reality of being a soldier in total war. Where "Ryan" was graphically and emotionally shocking to me in that I knew men who survived that beach in their youth, "Gates" provides an entirely different perspective on the total disregard for human life by the very governments that send their soldiers off to war. The beginning of the film brings home the insanity, brutality, and the total loss of humanness that soldiers on both sides experienced under their leadership. It's a horrible and realistic statement, and one is always well served by being reminded of it.
As a film about WWII, I believe this film is one of the top ranking movie epics to be released in recent years. Gone is the silly glory one found in the war movies of the 1950's. Gone also was the self-possessed insanity and surreal feel of the early movies about Vietnam like The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, or Platoon. Enemy at the Gates is more along the lines of Hamburger Hill in its devotion to simply showing just how shitty it was to be in a war of that magnitude. It places you there, in the trenches, covered in mud for months, face smattered with the dried and crusty blood of the last soldier you drove your knife through in the dark. As war movies go, this is excellent. It makes a clear statement on the insanity of war, the waste, the human drama, and never once loses itself in sappy romance (although there is a romance of sorts in the plot) like so many other films of its type. It is well worth seeing on its own merits as a "war" movie. It is both entertaining, thoughtful, and expressive, and presents a darn good yarn while never giving you that inane feeling you get when you see films from the 1950's or 1960's that tried so hard to paint war as something it was not: glorious.
As a story about Vassely (or Vassili, depending on the source) Zaitsev, the film seems to be a compilation of several separate stories taken from more than one historical work. While named after the historical work, Enemy at the Gates (William Craig, 1973), a book where Zaitsev is only mentioned in passing in several paragraphs, it does take many individual instances and mold them into the Zaitsev story. The 15-year-old Sacha Fillipov character, for instance, who was hung by Konig in the movie was real, but he had nothing to do with the duel or Konig. He did, however, spy for the Russian and was hanged with several other children on 24 December 1942. Other events in the movie, while following the general lines of the epic duel, seem made up simply through artistic license to make the film flow. Or, as in typical Hollywood fashion, to close a thread that never closed in real life. The love affair between Tania Chernova and Vassili Zaitsev was certainly for real. But she was wounded during an attempt to find and snipe Friedrich Von Paulus, the commanding General of the German 6th Army, when the female sniper ahead of her stepped on a land mine - not during an evacuation as the movie depicts. Severely wounded, Tania was carried back by her lover, Zaitsev, but that was the last either ever saw of one another. While recuperating in the hospital, Tania heard that Vassili was killed by a mine toward the end of the offensive and did not learn anything to the contrary until 1969!
Some elements of the movie seemed to be directly pulled from the novel War of the Rats, but then again, it is hard to separate fact from fiction as so much of the event was lost to history behind the iron curtain. One thing is certain, the movie leaves reality in the scene where Danilov dies. He seems to have been wounded in an attempt to point out Konig to Zaitsev. Also, historically, at the time of the duel, Zaitsev was accompanied by his friend and fellow sniper Nikolai Kulikov. Yet, Kulikov does not appear at all in this scene. Finally, the manner in which the duel was finished had little to do with what historical accounts exist. There are other discrepancies with what I have read from several accounts, but this is to be expected. I have YET to see any film, on any topic, stick to the facts.
The above not withstanding, as a movie, Enemy at the Gates is quite good and worth seeing. They did a more than admirable job of using proper equipment, and the graphics and cinematography are excellent. The movie continues a trend in the genre of using very accurate gear, uniforms, and vehicles - which, I can only assume, is both a result of computer animation, a good staff of historians, and WWII re-enactors, not to mention the availability of such equipment in the newly opened Eastern European countries. I never thought I'd see the day when they use what appears to be an authentic Panzerkampfwagon Mk III tank in a film. And I did not see a single American or Soviet tank with a German Cross on it! It's a small thing, but I find this sort of attention to detail a great trend in modern war movies.
While not a perfectly factual representation Zaitsev's life during that period or of the duel itself, the movie is fascinating in its realism and portrayal of the horror of Stalingrad. The plot is decently done and, inaccuracies aside, worth the price of admission.
As a final note, just to illustrate the fog of events, you will note that in my reviews of Enemy at the Gates (the book,) Enemy at the Gates (the movie), and War of the Rats, certain principle names appear with various spellings. The name Konig, Koenigs, and Konigs all represent the same individual, yet the name appears differently in several articles and works on the man. Likewise, Tanya sometimes appears as Tania Chernova, and Vassili as Vasely Zaitsev. I view these all as minor inconsistencies on account of translations between the Russian and German languages into English. One thing is certain: if you want to read the most about Zaitsev, Chernova, Kulikov, and the others, read War of the Rats. While sold as a fictional work, most of the individual events of import DID take place and are documented in that work. Of the books I have read thus far on the duel or the man, it is the only one to leave me feeling like I know a little more about the participants and their story.