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Movie Review

Hitler’s Third Reich, which had been spreading like a dark stain across the global landscape, invaded Stalingrad in 1942. Judging from the opening scenes of Enemy at the Gates, it would seem Soviet officers were using as much ammunition to exact swift punishment on their own deserting soldiers as they were spending on the Germans. But amidst a Nazi rout, one hero arose. Vassili Zaitsev, a former shepherd boy skilled with a rifle, quietly dispatched a small cadre of high-ranking Germans with single shots to the head. The only friendly witness to this feat was Danilov, a Russian political officer responsible for elevating the troops’ morale and spreading pro-socialist propaganda for his vodka-sipping boss, Nikita Krushchev (Hoskins dusting off the very same accent he used to voice an animated goose in Balto).

Stalingrad lay in rubble, but the fighting continued, stealthily led by Vassili, whose exploits as the nation’s top sniper were played for full effect in local newspapers. He became a household name. A rallying point. Tallying the number of kills he’d make from day to day was a matter of public discussion the way Americans talked about the McGwire/Sosa home-run race in 1999. But celebrity has its price. That notoriety reportedly led Germany to dispatch its own crack shot, Major Koenig, to locate and surgically remove Vassili. The remainder of the film chronicles the cat-and-mouse game between those two lethal sharpshooters.

Based on a true story, Enemy at the Gates does an excellent job of recreating the scope and chaos of this World War II battle with remarkable cinematography, especially in the early going. Once the mano a mano marksmanship clinic commences between Vassili and Koenig, the film uses claustrophobic mazes of dusty, uninviting rubble to convey an overall mood of paranoia and hopelessness. Soldiers realize any breath could be their last. If war is hell, Stalingrad was Satan’s footstool during the Nazi march across Russia. Whether or not a love triangle involving Vassili, Danilov and a feisty young patriot named Tanja was actually part of the historical record is uncertain, but it adds to the drama. So does the presence of an intelligence-gathering young shoe-shine boy whose loyalties aren’t fully realized until it’s too late.

positive elements: Soldiers fight bravely for honor and country. Characters put themselves at risk for one another. One literally sticks his neck out for Vassili, even though he knows that doing so is a death sentence. Although dishonesty is inherently problematic, a pair of lies are told with the best of intentions (a mother is spared the news of her son’s death; a critically wounded girl is claimed as a relative to assure that she’ll get medical attention). Danilov ultimately recognizes the futility of socialism, acknowledging that there will always be envy and disparity regardless of government’s attempt to vanquish them. In other words, the human heart cannot be changed by politics. Danilov challenges the conventional communist wisdom that fear and intimidation are the best way to motivate troops. Instead of "making examples" of cowards, he would prefer to inspire comrades by offering them a sense of hope ("We must give them examples—examples to follow. We must give them heroes").

spiritual content: Danilov and Tanja discuss the persecution of the Jews. People speak of praying for Vassili on several occasions.

sexual content: In a prolonged scene of physical passion, Tanja and Vassili begin by groping each other below the belt and then impetuously engage in intercourse (despite the couple being clothed from the waist up and otherwise covered by a blanket, the scene leaves little to the imagination).

violent content: Many instances of men being shot and killed, either by strafings of machine-gunfire or single bullets to the head. Some murders are more graphic than others. Gory entry wounds. Splatters of blood. Crumpled bodies. Severed limbs. Crows picking at the flesh of casualties. Elsewhere, a young boy is shown hanging from a noose. Rather than face disgrace, a Russian officer who failed in battle takes Krushchev’s advice and commits suicide. The Soviets are brutal to their own soldiers, shooting deserters and shamelessly sending men to their deaths in a losing battle (Krushchev yells at a field general, "I don’t care if you’ve lost half your men. Lose the other half—or lose yourself!"). A soldier describes having his teeth knocked out by members of the Soviet army. Tanja tells the tragic story of how her parents and others were callously murdered by the Germans.

crude or profane language: About a dozen profanities, including four s-words.

drug and alcohol content: Cigarettes and moderate alcohol use appear in several scenes (of course, long-term addictions aren’t big concerns for fighting men never sure if they’ll see another sunset).

other negative elements: Enlisted men get kicks passing gas into a candle flame.

conclusion: Have you ever engaged in a snowball fight? Not just a friendly exchange of softly packed, gently lobbed spheres of fluff. I’m talkin’ ice balls hurled with venom—the kind of take-no-prisoners war fought for neighborhood dominance. Anyone who has ever found themselves pinned down behind a trash can or around the corner of a shed, not daring to stick their head out for fear of having it violently slushed, will identify in some small measure with the much more lethal predicament facing Vassili and his comrades. A musical score by James Horner (Titanic) ratchets up the tension. At any moment, out of the silence, a single, carefully placed bullet can reduce the cast by one. In explicit fashion. At that level, Enemy at the Gates is an unnerving tale of war from a sniper’s perspective, reinforcing the impermanence of life on the battlefield. Yet there’s so much killing that viewers may feel the need for a truce. Those excesses ambush Enemy.

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Positive Elements

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