Enemy at the Gates (2001) or The Duel of Two Snipers

It’s interesting how often people mention Enemy at the Gates as one of their favourite war movies, yet I do not see it included very often in more official Best of Lists. I wonder why and can only guess. Maybe because it is too esthetic? Hardly ever have ruins looked this good. Or is it because of the love story? I must admit, I had a problem with it. I don’t mind a love story, although it is mostly a bit tacky in a war movie, but I would have liked this one to be left out. I thought it spoilt an otherwise perfect movie. And I think another cast would have been better as well, apart from an excellent Ed Harris, I didn’t care for the actors. Despite all these reservations, I think it is an excellent movie. The central story is suspenseful and it is one of the most beautifully filmed war movies ever and certainly one of those I will re-watch. And don’t you just love movies about snipers?

Stalingrad 1942. The city is under siege. The German army hopes to win the war and to secure the oil fields near the Caspian Sea. The Russians are well aware if they lose Stalingrad, it is over. The losses are high, morale is low and a little bit of propaganda might do every one a lot of good. That’s why Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) thinks its high time to fabricate a hero and charges Danilov, an important oficer of the Communist Party, with this mission.

Enemy at the Gates is loosely based on the story of the famous Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law). Vassili has learned to shoot at an early age, and now, in his early twenties he is the best sniper in the Russian army. Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) decides to pick him, and turn him into the hero Khrushchev is looking for. Vassili gets newspaper coverage and publicity and soon his fame is known far beyond the Russian borders and especially the Germans are well aware what a dangerous enemy he is.

Amidst the rubble and the ruins we see two parallel stories unfold. The first story line, follows a love triangle. Through Danilov Vassili meets the Jewish woman Tania (Rachel Weisz). Both men are in love with her but as it seems Tania has only eyes for Vassili. This love triangle is frankly annoying and disrupts the movie. It isn’t even very plausible.

The second story line revolves around the competition between Major König (Ed Harris), a famous German sniper, and Vassili. König is sent to Stalingrad to take out Vassili. All the parts of this second story line are quite gripping. We see the men hunt each other, we see how they get to know each other, how they try to find out how the other will react, how and from where he will shoot, how they try to ambush each other.

Snipers are endlessly patient. They don’t just shoot wildly, they aim carefully, take their time, observe and shoot only when they are fairly sure of hitting their target. Enemy at the Gates perfectly captures this cat-like hunter quality of the sniper and that’s what makes this film so watchable despite its flaws.

The director Jean-Jacques Annaud is famous for his cinematography. He has made one of the visually most compelling movies The Bear or L’ours . Enemy at the Gates is equally stunning from a cinematographic perspective.

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8 thoughts on “Enemy at the Gates (2001) or The Duel of Two Snipers

  1. warmoviebuff says:

    I am pleased you liked it. I am a big fan. It was Europe’s answer to Saving Private Ryan (note the opening scene), and while not as good, it is very respectable.

    I too had problems with the romance, but when I used to be able to show it in my Military History class (before the no R-Rated ruling came down) I liked the presense of a strong female warrior. That is rare in a war movie. Plus the Russians did have female snipers and supposedly Zaitsev had an affair with one, so it’s not like it is totally implausible. The sleeping bag scene has to be one of the sexiest, nonnudity sex scenes I’ve seen.

    I liked the acting. Obviously, Harris stands out, but Hoskins is excellent as well.

    Amazingly, the seed of the movie comes from just a few pages in the book Enemy at the Gates (a history of the battle). I read the book as a kid and can tell you the few pages on the snipers’ duel did deserve a movie.

    I do not get the lack of love for this movie. It is reviled in some quarters. The same people that love The Thin Red LIne, I bet.

    • I love The Thin Red Line and still appreciated this.
      I read that it was heavily influenced by Saving Private Ryan, and yes, you are right, the opening scene is reminiscent.
      I didn’t think the love story per se was implausible, I thought the triangle was. I found Danilov’s behaviour odd and not believable. Maybe it would have worked better if it had just between the two of them.
      I think nude sex scenes are highly overrated and can only agree on your comment.
      Joseph Fiennes and Jude Law are two actors I’m not too keen on but Ed Harris is very good.
      Maybe it’s not liked because it is not an anti-war movie. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying it glorifies war, it’s decidedly not showing the ugly side. Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line make anti-war statements. Or do you think it does also make an anti-war statement?
      I don’t know why but Enemy at the Gates makes me think of Behind Enemy Lines (and not just because the title sounds similar).
      How did you like that?

  2. warmoviebuff says:

    You make a good point about it not being particularly anti-war. Certainly not as much as others, but you do have the deaths of two major positive characters (Danilov and the little boy). I know that teenage boys find any sniper movie to be pro-war.

    Sorry, I see no similarity to Behind Enemy Lines aside from the titles. I saw it a long time ago and found it to be average.

  3. […] Enemy at the Gates (US/UK/Germany/Ireland 2001) Showdown of two snipers in Stalingrad. The Russian sniper is a local war hero and in love with a Jewish woman who is in the resistance. Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz and Ed Harris in a beautifully shot war drama. (See my review) […]

  4. Alexander S. says:

    Honestly, this movie seems very unconvincing, on Russian eye – as for visuality and psychology of charaters.

    • Thanks for your comment. It is very glossy, in any case I prefer “Stalingrad”. And the psychlogy is not overly convincing but I had the biggest problem with the love story, maybe not so much – now that you mention it – because of the story as such but because of its credibility, the triangle…

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