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Enemy at the Gates 2001

I rented this just in time for Veterans Day 2002 and had little idea what it was about. Subsequent research unveiled that it was one of the most expensive European movies ever produced, $85 million. I found it to be a halfway decent movie I could watch again, for all that cash though, it just did not capture the scope, magnificent Armageddon, and pathos that was Stalingrad.

The plot in some ways mirrors the Titanic, a couple swept up in some grandiose historical event swirling around them as they try to find time for each other. This was seen in the recent Pearl Harbor movie as well. In any case the couple in focus here are Russian recuits involved in the defense of Stalingrad.

Hitler has reached his high water mark and has laid siege to the city of Stalingrad (once named and now again Volograd). History suggests that the city would have otherwise been bypassed or isolated while the German Army continued on their merry way to grab the oilfields beyond and possibly force Turkey into the war and even possibly link up with Rommel in North Africa. The strategic options available to Hitler seemed quite limitless as historians and wargamers have argued for decades.

However the name "Stalingrad" on the printed maps captured Hitler’s attention with a fixation that transcended his normal reasoning. Men and material were poured into the city in an effort to reduce all Soviet defenses there in order to symbolically hang Stalin’s severed head from his belt. The relationship between Hitler and Stalin was quite unique. It seemed that Stalin had an admiration for Hitler in prewar years which suggested he sincerely trusted Hitler as a friend, a brother or even in a strange way, as sort of a hero. Hitler had no such feelings for Stalin in return. He was a man controlled by his ideology. He wanted to purge the USSR of most of its populace and replace them with his idea of the Aryan race.

If Hitler set aside his cruel belief system, had not attacked the USSR, in spite of their contrasting ideologies, it is interesting to speculate where this friendship of these two monsters of the 20th century might have led.

When Hitler attacked the USSR, Stalin was in a state of denial, how could he have been betrayed so? Once this fact had been cognized by Stalin, he pursued the war with viciousness and personal rage that only the betrayed and backstabbed could understand. Thus the war became a personal contest of dictatorial wills pinioned at Stalingrad.

Vast armies were flung at each other and from August 1942 to the first days of February 1943, the fight lasted. Though small libraries of books have been written about that battle, suffice to say German forces seized about 80% of the city and were stalled by resistance in the other 20%. This 20% was backed up against the river and it is here where the Russian recruits of the movie come in. As winter set, a fateful decision was made to "hold the city and winter if necessary" and more German forces were brought into the burg. Note, that the Germans did not have the surrounding area controlled, but instead had a tenuous "firm grip" on the city, such as a long outstretched arm might have on a tomato still hung in the bush.

In November, a large Soviet tank army appeared in the north ‘from out of nowhere," cracked the thin, weak, defending Rumanian Axis lines severing this arm at the wrist and linked up with another Soviet assault forces coming up from the south. Subsequently Stalingrad was isolating off from the west, away from the German supply lines and against the river, where both sides of the bank were in Soviet hands.
The German forces tried several times to push open a corridor to reach the surrounded city and its trapped forces (Hitler did not order a corresponding effort to break OUT and stay out) but they were repulsed each time by the Red Army and fouled by the increasingly bad weather. The Soviets then poured everything and every man available to liquidate and starve the cut off pocket of Germans in Stalingrad, estimated to be at some 300,000. The Germans attempted to take final control of the city and consolidate their gains by pushing against the defenders who largely remained at the riverbank side of the city. Battle was said to be continuous and unrelenting--the very rocks themselves cracked because of the sound of it.

More men were lost on either side than the US lost in the whole of WW2. This perhaps WAS the most monstrous battle, the most grievous and perhaps most decisive fight of the 20th century. More tonnage of explosives had been dumped on that bleeding city than all of Vietnam. 800,000 Axis troops of Germany, Italy, Rumania and others as well as some 1.1 million Soviet troops came to play. Of the lot, the numbers vary, but maybe 250,000 Axis died with and additional 110,000 captured and some 500,000 Soviets killed with 13,500 being executed by their own security forces for various "infractions."

In the movie, strolling through that historical background strife, were two Russian lovers in search of a crack German sniper. But, the colossal historical struggle that they were involved in, most of it must have been taking place elsewhere, for it sure did seem that the city was naked empty a large amount of the time as the one, two or three main Russian characters and German sniper stalked each other. A few planes flew overhead and dropped some ordinance now and again, a few men from each side, maybe less than ten and certainly not more than a hundred are seen attacking each other in occasional skirmishes.. Plenty of frozen dead bodies were laid about and rubble covered the ground and no window had an unfractured piece of glass in it.

With the exception of some of the opening scenes, we are not treated to the spectacular struggle of death and mayhem I would have expected from such a monumental siege battle.

In fact, there were more soldiers present in the room when the Russian couple were making love than I saw fighting in the streets and buildings as they searched for the German sniper. But the focus of the movie is more on the five or so Russians, their personal experience and efforts to get the German sniper than show a historical documentary about its backdrop (though, Titanic seems to do both well and Pearl Harbor…, less so in this area).

On the other hand, I found the movie to be one of the most philosophically anti-Communist movies to appear in a long time. It is not obvious or burdensome in its efforts to convey the message. Most of the rhetoric is subtle and easily missed but if one would listen closely (especially to the political officer) one would hear the characters talk about the absurdities, injustice and illogic of the Marxist system they purported to believe in. And so the political officer muses, even in a society where everyone is well cared for, where everyone has food to eat and clothes to wear, they are still jealous of a smile, still envious of another’s friendship, he laments in so many words. Yeah, I need to see the movie again to get the quote right, but that is what he is trying to convey about Marxism and its attempt to restructure society and Man into a utopian ideal and how the contentious side of human nature wants to get in the way. Sounds like someone has rediscovered there IS such a thing as sin.

The message of how the Russians treated their own was certainly more obvious. Though it is certainly understandable that recruit soldiers had to go into battle unarmed and pick up a dead fellow’s rifle in order to gain a weapon to shoot with (it is not IF the comrade holding the rifle is shot, it is WHEN). Though I do not know if this happened at Stalingrad, it certainly did occur elsewhere especially in the first year of the Russian war as several German soldiers have indicated in their books and accounts of that era.

The mentality of shooting one’s retreating conscripts as they fall back from an untenable attack, however, is less forgivable. This perhaps is one of the most tragic and surrealistic scenes of the film. One can understand the Germans killing them as they advanced, after all, the Russians WERE attacking. BUT, after the attack broke up and the Russian recruits retreated, they were shot by their own officers as they attempted to return to their lines. The film played it out in slow motion, possibly even slower and with more tragic effect than the previous clip of the failed assault on the Germans. The murdered Russians fall in grotesque positions, convulsing, twitching macabrely and special attention is given to the expressions of the Soviet officers shooting as well as to the menacing smoke curling from the machine gun as it cools from the last rounds fired at the recruits.

Though a fair amount of "Hollyhistory" is present throughout the movie, the real value of the film may well lie in the flurry of interest it may well generate from viewers who know nothing of the battle or background history and be inspired to find out more. A search on the Internet exhumed a fair amount of information this and on some of the Russian historical characters involved and some of incidentals surrounding them.

The Russian lovers, parted ways after Stalingrad. The woman, Tania Chernova, once New Yorker, was indeed lover of Vassili Zaitsev, and her own story has the stuff, plot and tragedy good movies and sappy novels are made from. She WAS hurt, but by a land mine while on a mission to snipe Von Paulus. She recovered and went elsewhere. Tania had wrongly heard that her lover had been killed in battle during the final Stalingrad offensive. After the war she suffered depression partly because of her wounds which left her unable to bear children and also her loss of her family and Vasilli. The man, Vassili Zaitsev, was wounded by a mine as well, but recovered and went on to become a Hero of the Soviet Union which garnered him a fair amount of fame. Unfortunately, he tried to search for Tania but war records by the USSR were spotty at best and he gave up. He married, became a civil engineer and had three daughters.

Tania, in 1969, through a reporter who had earlier interviewed Vassili, was shocked to learn he was still ALIVE. However, this gave her little joy for she loved him still and was brokenhearted to hear that he was unable to locate her after the war.

Volograd maintains a monument to the fallen and heroic defense of the city. From various photos I have seen, it looks every bit as impressive and moving as any monument or memorial to the war dead anywhere. If I should ever get the opportunity, I would like to visit it.

Copyright ©2002

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