Enemy at the Gates
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
Written by Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard
Starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Ed Harris


Enemy at the Gates

Jean-Jacques Annaud, whose passion for exquisite shots has always kept him from making a film worth watching, has almost managed to do it again with "Enemy at the Gates." Given a true story that was part of the battle of Stalingrad, in which two expert riflemen stage a mini-war with each other in the midst of the wholesale carnage (a million died, 500,000 Germans were taken prisoner when the Soviets broke the back of the offensive and turned the tide of the war), he has managed to turn the most powerful war story of the twentieth century into a turgid, stop-and-start, adolescent love story punctuated by death and grief.

That's not to say there aren't bodies flying, machine-guns firing, and acres of dead and dying soldiers scattered across the screen. And there are some powerful moments in which we watch the chess match between the young Soviet sharpshooter Vassily (Jude Law) and the older German officer, Major Konig, who is his nemesis (Ed Harris). And, yes, Annaud uses marvelous urban landscapes of a blasted city in which to set those fights.

But he's also wasted time with a spurious love triangle among Law, Joseph Fiennes as a Soviet propaganda officer who turns Vassily into the country's hero, and Rachel Weisz, as Tanya, a young Jewish soldier with a backstory to die for (her parents saved to go to Palestine but were killed by the Nazis in the most wicked possible way). The script, which Annaud co-wrote with Alain Godard, is beset with clanking dialogue, clichés from the deepest storeroom of the war movie museum, and endless, slow-zoom-in closeups of the principals that don't lead anywhere. It's as though Annaud hasn't trusted the war and the battle itself to provide a worthwhile context for his story, and tried to shoehorn in a few extras.

One of those extras - viscerally satisfying in the film but incomplete dramatically - is the story of a young boy, Sasha (Gabriel Marshall-Thomson), trying to spy for Vassily by acting as bootblack to Major Konig, then reporting back on Konig's plans for the next day. But we never learn just how he crosses the lines and why Konig trusts him. Had Annaud bothered to take five minutes of screen time for that setup he would have given it much more power. As it is, the payoff is still heartwrenching.

There is little chemistry visible among the three principals; Law is forever staring over people's heads into some spot that only he can see, or perhaps he is simply trying to read his lines off a card. Fiennes, perhaps supposed to be a coward, has an epiphany right out of the 1939 film "Four Feathers." And Weisz seems only to be looking for someone to talk to her. What is saddest about this film is that it has demeaned a true epic in human history, and is likely to keep better filmmakers from dealing with it.