Studio: Paramount Pictures
US Rating: Rated R For Strong Graphic War Violence and Some Sexuality
Film Length: 131Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, French 2.0 Dolby Surround and Spanish 5.0 Dolby Digital Surround
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese
Review Date: May 17, 2009
“He doesn't know you exist, but at that moment you're closer to him than anyone else on earth. You see his face through the sign. You see whether he shaved or not. You can see whether he's married if he's got a wedding ring. It's not like firing at a distant shape. It's not just a uniform. It's a man's face. Those faces don't go away. They come back and they get replaced by more faces.…”
The Show - out of
Enemy at the Gates is a superb production – a terrific tale and a brutal, dark, tense war film. That is veers from historical accuracy considerably for the sake of dramatic rewards doesn’t diminish the experience of watching it and it remains one of my all time favorite World War II films – among classics such as Saving Private Ryan, Das Boot and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Each rich, powerful and rewarding but in very different ways. But this film as a historical representation of certain aspects of the battle for Stalingrad (the horrid Commisars firing on their own troops and the cat & mouse tale of two snipers), cannot be taken at face value as much of what is depicted in the plot is concocted purely for suspense and drama.
As the story begins, a train of Stalin’s soldiers are headed to the brutal frontlines of the battle for Stalingrad. Hundreds of young men charge against the wall of Nazi soldiers in a futile effort to repel them from the Soviet city that is the namesake of the harsh Communist leader. Among them is Vassili Zaitsev, a skilled marksman as we see from the opening scene. But, not assigned a rifle, he is unable to utilize his talents. The charge against the German stronghold is a massacre. Vassili plays dead in the carnage and when a political officer crawls into the lay of dead soldiers with him – he finds an opportunity to dispatch five German’s in just a few minutes with a rifle– an act of heroism that gets him assigned to the sniper division and catapults him amidst the propaganda machine to a legendary status among troops and civilians alike.
A darling of Kruschev for inspiring a downtrodden force, fighting in the cruel, bleak wasteland of Stalingrad, Vassili and his new Political Officer friend, Danilov, now promoted to the office of the General, continue to demoralize the Germans slogging it out in the demolished buildings and rubble of the city. The situation is dire enough for Berlin to unleash perhaps the führer’s most skilled sniper, General König – a man with superior instinct and skill who will hunt Vassili as if he were game and rip the heart out of the Soviet morale.
A beautiful, confident young lady, Tania Chernova – whom Vassili had noticed on the train to the front lines, is assigned to the Political office under Danilov, triggering an initially unspoken rivalry between Vassili and his friend and mentor. A rivalry which damages their friendship as the brutality of war swarms them and the cat and mouse danger between each nation’s prize snipers unfolds.
This is absolutely a fine sniper film, and an impressive and bold war film achieving scope and scale while keeping the intimate, emotive qualities of conflict and love central. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud undertook a daunting task in bringing the much ignored Russian involvement in WWII to theaters. In an almost entirely European funded production and filmed entirely on the continent – it was the most expensive production ever filmed there and features several grand battles, rife with visual effects enhancements, numerous extras and expert cinematography. It is undoubtedly a bleak film, but still rich with impressive production design, realism of settings and a one of James Horner’s most sweeping and magnificent scores – it succeeds in so many ways that its failings are quite well hidden upon first viewing. What becomes more apparent in subsequent viewings is a weakness in the script – particularly in the hands of the typically superb Bob Hoskins, who plays Nikita Khrushchev in a performance of the imposing figure that could have been triumphant if not for shortcuts in the script for him. Alain Godard, who co-wrote the film with the director, manages to evoke the madness of the battle and a genuine sense of the common man thrust against Hitler’s much better equipped forces – but loses focus from time to time.
Performances are very good, with Jude Law exuding both a cunning killer skill and youthful innocence, creating quite the fascinating character suffering the weight of war and seemingly unattainable expectations placed upon him. Joseph Fiennes is excellent as his character vacillates between sympathetic and unsympathetic. Ed Harris is menacing in the role of General Erwin König. He has a screen presence that is undeniable and provides a solid threatening presence for every second he is seen. Rachel Weisz is very good, as she so often is, conveying a stiff upper lip while revealing vulnerability critical to her character. Ron Perlman has a small role also as a veteran sniper Koulikov (based on the real life Nikolay Kulikov) who trained under General König before the war. He manages to bring out a smile with his gruff and cocky demeanor.
Enemy at the Gates sometimes lacks subtlety and it is more a fable than an account of the real figure, Vasily Zaytsev, but an engaging and often riveting fable it is. A worthy tale set among an arm of World War II that is largely hidden in the West’s understanding and evaluation of that terrible conflict. The war scenes are, though never as visceral as the defining Saving Private Ryan, quite bloody and vicious also.
I am extremely pleased with what Paramount has provided on blu-ray. The film, presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and in 1080p High Definition is very good. As I mention in my review, the look of the film is bleak and is stark with its drained colors; the sepia tones indicative of the era. The film appears unmangled by the intrusive hand of excessive digital noise reduction, film grain is thankfully evident and there are times when the clarity creates a vivid and lifelike image – most notably in several close-up shots of Jude Law and Ed Harris in their sniper positions, patiently waiting out their opponent. The image will not wow you as most recent productions simply because the filmmakers have chosen a limited color palette and a drab one at that - but I was very happy with how this blu-ray looked and the upgrade over the SD-DVD is very noticeable.
Enemy at the Gates comes with a reasonably healthy English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD (as well as French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks). The metallic sounds of the rifle recoiling as the spent munitions are ejected are crisp in the center and front left/right channels. Dialogue without issue in the center channel as well and the subwoofer actively used during the many explosions, growling fighter planes veering through scenes and the punch of machine gun fire.
A more aggressive surround sound/directional effect effort would have really elevated the overall appreciation of the film – but even with only moderate activity back there the audio delivers for the experience.
Through the Crosshairs - (19:36) – A rather functional making of that serves mainly as an extended ad for the feature. Some behind the scenes footage, particularly of the initial charge against the Germans are interesting, however. This extra, along with the others on this disc, have all been ported over from the previously released SD-DVD version.
Inside Enemy at the Gates - (15:01) – Some good insight from the actors and director on the characters and the story being told intercut with footage from the film. .
Deleted Scenes - (10:13) – Nine deleted scenes, mostly dialogue focused and not necessary to the final product – they are worth seeing, however.
Theatrical Trailer - The original theatrical trailer in full HD – the only extra to be presented this way. It makes good use of both John William’s score for Nixon and James Horner’s original score for the film (as well as his score for Braveheart to sell the film.
Enemy at the Gates examines the substance of propaganda, the toll of war and in particular, the largely untold story of Vasily Zaytsev (whose name is changed in the film). This film is not perfect. The visual effects are not as polished as even a medium sized Hollywood production and the script at times pulls you out of the moment – but none of this diminishes the thoroughly excellent performances, superbly choreographed battle sequences with such scope and the impressive environments created. Intelligent, large and aggressive at times, Enemy at the Gates doesn’t get the credit it deserves, but with this High Definition release, hopefully more will discover what it has to offer.