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
Hitlers 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 Stalins
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
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
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
anothers 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 fellows 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 ones 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
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 www.SteamChip.com