Studs Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II, provides only two brief accounts of the Soviet media during the campaign for Russia that began in 1941. One concerns the radio station at Leningrad after months of brutal warfare have left the city virtually destroyed: “When the radio was on,” Harrison Salisbury relates in an epigram, “the metronome tick-ticked. It was like the city’s heartbeat. Without it, there was no outward sign that this city was alive.” This comment comes in the middle of a description of the conditions at Leningrad—20 degrees below zero, no transportation, very little food, corpses stacked nearly as high as the city’s ruined buildings.
Another account belongs to a Russian poet, Olag Tsakumov, who was seven when the war began. He recalls reading a poem called “To The Victory Day” over the airwaves in 1941, and says of this desperate time, “It was important for the soldiers at the front to hear this childish voice on the radio, to know that the children of Leningrad were alive.” The story of Russian children inspiring their countrymen to fight may be stirring, but it lingers not so long as the one of the station and the city reduced to the metronome’s steady pulse, able to convey no meaning except a feeble affirmation of its own continuing existence—one tiny step from annihilation and complete silence.
Enemy at the Gates, hoping to present a fairly uncomplicated view of the war on the Eastern front, focuses less on this silence, and more on the Russian media’s role in motivating that nation’s army to its eventual victory over Nazi imperialism. In this, it resembles Olag Tsakumov’s memory of reading “To The Victory Day” as a child. It is a melodrama about perseverance, courage, and love, and about young men and women discovering their best selves during war. In this it also seems a bit like an update of, say, the Why We Fight series Frank Capra produced during World War II to boost American morale with stories of heroism in the face of German and Japanese barbarity. It even begins with an expository voice-over and animated map, the sort Capra favored so, in which a black pool spills out of a swastika in the heart of Germany, overflows the nation’s borders, and spreads like oil over continental Europe. But in fixing on wartime propaganda, and on the notion that national victory is the preeminent goal of individuals who fight in wars, the movie still can’t seem to avoid conjuring some images as haunting as that of the ticking metronome.
Enemy at the Gates takes as its source a historical footnote to the battle for Stalingrad—the rise in the Russian army of a preternaturally gifted sniper, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), whose skill at picking off German officers is so prodigious that it elevates him to the status of a hero. Concerned with the jumpstart Vassili is giving to Russian morale, the Nazis send their own master sniper, Major Koenig (Ed Harris), to hunt him down. That Vassili’s skills as a marksman are so intuitive as to be nearly innate is demonstrated when he first appears on screen as a child camouflaged in a snow bank, drawing a bead on a wolf who is stalking the family horse. His tiny finger hovers steadily over his rifle trigger. “I am a stone,” he says in voice-over, “I do not move.” Vassili’s talent with a gun is tied in with this state of watchful, wary repose, ironically akin to a kind of transcendental meditation and therefore supernatural. But it has a secondary meaning: to prevail, it is best to resemble the dead.
A moment later the film jumps to August 1942, and the first of many lush, elaborately staged, and staggeringly bloody battle scenes in the blasted center of Stalingrad. The city has already been reduced to rubble by the time Vassili arrives—as painstakingly replicated in the film’s vast set pieces of constructed ruins and computer generated vistas of smoke and flame. Here Vassili first meets Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), the Russian political officer who will eventually orchestrate Vassili’s rise to fame, as the pair hide among heaped up corpses from a group of German machine gunners. While posing as a dead Russian, Danilov spies a high-ranking German officer with an entourage and levels a rifle on him, but balks at the crucial moment. He asks Vassili if he knows how to shoot; Vassili takes the rifle and seems nearly as surprised as Danilov when he manages to assassinate all five Germans, timing his shots to coincide with explosions so none of the Germans finds out what’s happening before each receives the bullet meant for him.
Danilov writes an article about Vassili’s exploits that makes the front page of the Army newspaper at a crucial moment: Stalingrad is about to be overrun, and a menacing Nikita Kruschev (played fearsomely by the versatile Bob Hoskins) is searching for a way to force his troops to stand up against the Nazi onslaught. His desperate solution up to this point has been to gun down his own soldiers when they retreat, but Danilov suggests providing them with a figure who will give them “hope.” To this end, Vassili is promoted to the Russian sniper corps, where he proceeds to kill—apparently—scores of Germans with each passing day. This is conveyed through a montage of newspaper articles featuring a stoic Vassili posing with his rifle, and an ever-growing array of dead Germans’ helmets. Vassili appears again the way he was as a child, camouflaged under a sheet of canvas and saying, in voice-over, “I am a stone.” At a press conference, a reporter asks, “Is it true you shot your first wolf when you were five?” Vassili is never far from childhood; nor is he ever far from death.
This is Enemy at the Gates‘s most elegant theme, one that its often heavy-handed melodrama almost but not quite diminishes: that to be observed is to die, but to be invisible and quiet as the dead may allow you to survive. This is more fully elaborated with the arrival of Major Koenig. Koenig is every bit Vassili’s equal at the craft of camoflage—passing himself off as a dead German stormtrooper and even as a mannequin in a blasted department store. This being, after all, a movie, it takes Koenig to visit any real peril on the larger-than-life Vassili. “He’s not dead,” Koenig says, answering a rumor circulating about Vassili after he doesn’t return from a mission, “because I haven’t killed him yet”—as though Vassili’s sniper skills somehow render him impervious to the waves of artillery and fiery bombing raids the Germans are visiting on Stalingrad.
According to the movie’s rules, Koenig—the only force to which Vassili is vulnerable—shares some of Vassili’s inexplicable connection with the supernatural, so that once he begins stalking Vassili, he seems to breathe momentary life into the dead. Vassili mistakes a badly decomposed Nazi soldier for Koenig, staked out for the kill. Tanya (Rachel Weisz), a radio message interpreter and recipient of Vassili’s love, makes eye contact with a German officer on a stretcher as she climbs through a water pipe en route to rescue Vassili, whom Koenig has pinned down. The German seems to look at her with shock and accusation, ready to give her away to the armed Nazis all around her, but a moment later a medic comes and gently shuts his eyes. What appears to be a living gaze is only a projection of Tanya’s own fear.
During all this, Stalingrad’s devastation, lovingly rendered through elaborate sets and special effects, is a mere symptom of contemporary cinema’s infatuation with exquisite debris. Still, as the line between life and death begins to blur over this progressively more decimated wasteland, you can nearly hear the metronome, tick-ticking. As a rendering of the battle for Stalingrad it’s far too idealistic to possibly be accurate. But as an occasionally somber meditation on the toll war takes on the human soul, it’s not without its moments.