War on film – Enemy at the Gates

TAYLOR DOWNING REVIEWS a classic war movie.

As the Russian army commits appalling atrocities in Ukraine, it might not feel like the best time to recall the heroism of the Red Army in the Second World War. But this year marks the 80th anniversary of the titanic Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted from late August 1942 to February 1943.

Stalingrad was without doubt the critical turning-point battle of the war, fought amid the rubble and ruins of one of the greatest Soviet cities of the day. Vladimir Putin’s current, cruel war should not prevent us from remembering this decisive battle, the role played by the Soviet defenders of the city that bore their leader’s name, and how it has been presented on film.

Tsaritsyn was a large settlement on the west bank of the Volga River that, in 1925, was renamed after Stalin. For 15 years, Stalingrad grew dramatically in size, and it became a centre of industry, helping to power the Soviet Union through its rapid industrialisation.

But unlike many of the older Russian industrial centres, Stalingrad became a model Soviet city, a showpiece laid out spaciously with parks, gardens, and monumental squares along miles of the Volga riverside. The city was home to more than 600,000 citizens.

On 23 August 1942, advance troops of the German 6th Army arrived outside Stalingrad in a vast and rapid drive intended to capture the city on the northern flank of the advance into the Caucasus and the rich oilfields in the south. Civilians dug trenches and prepared defences, and for several weeks desperate fighting took place. It seemed a miracle that the puny Soviet forces could hold up the might of the all-conquering German army but, inspired by the slogan ‘Not One Step Back’, the defenders held grimly on.

The Germans bombed and shelled Stalingrad relentlessly, turning its factories and once-splendid squares into rubble. But this did not help their progress. The army was geared to fighting a mobile war across the vast plains of southern Russia, but now had to fight street by street, house by house, ruin by ruin in close-quarters combat. By September, the Soviets were throwing soldiers into the battle as quickly as they could bring them to the city.

A 1973 non-fiction book by American author William Craig, Enemy at the Gates, focused on the duel between two snipers as a central part of the battle. This became the core idea for Jean-Jacques Annaud, the French director and writer. He is best known outside France for the 1986 film The Name of the Rose, starring Sean Connery and based on the novel by Umberto Eco.

Along with Alain Godard, Annaud wrote the screenplay for Enemy at the Gates, which was financed by Paramount in the United States and Pathé in France. Filming began in various locations around Germany in the year 2000.

Victory or death

The film opens with a railway transport arriving on the other side of the Volga from the burning city of Stalingrad in September 1942. Vasily Zaitsev (Jude Law) is one of thousands of fresh-faced new Red Army arrivals who are bundled into boats to cross the river into the city. Red Army commissars waving red flags urge the men forward.

In scenes that have an echo of the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the boats come under attack from artillery and from Stuka dive-bombers. Terrible casualties are inflicted on the newly arrived soldiers, but the commissars shoot anyone who tries to escape into the river. Zaitsev is one of the lucky ones who survives to get to the city.

There are not enough rifles to go around. The commissars hand out those that are available and shout: ‘When the one with the rifle gets killed, the one following takes up the rifle.’ Zaitsev does not get a weapon, but is given five rounds of ammunition. As was often the case in Stalingrad, the new arrivals, many of whom had only a few days of training, are hastily thrown into battle. Again, the commissars make the position clear, crying out: ‘Soldiers of the victorious Red Army – victory or death.’ To this they add, ‘Anyone who retreats will be shot.’

The men take part in an infantry assault that gives fresh meaning to the term ‘cannon fodder’. The well-dug-in German forces cut down vast droves of Red Army soldiers as they charge towards them. When further advance is hopeless, they turn to pull back, but the commissars order their own machine-guns to fire on them. It is a scene of appalling brutality and violence. But it was never quite like this.

The Red Army did not regularly open fire on retreating soldiers. This is not to say that punishment was not harsh. Deserters would always be shot if caught. Some of those who retreated might be arrested by the NKVD secret police, and some later court-martialled for desertion or for defeatism. But the brutality of the commissars shown in Enemy is largely a fiction. Even so, 13,500 Red Army soldiers were executed during the course of the battle.

After the failed attack, Zaitsev and Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) are left crawling among dead bodies in a fountain in the city centre. A group of five German officers turn up assuming everyone is dead. Zaitsev finds a rifle. We know from the opening scenes that as a boy Zaitsev had been shown how to use a hunting rifle by his grandfather. Using the five rounds of ammunition, he shoots each one of the Germans dead. Danilov is suitably impressed, and so begins a close friendship between the Soviet commissar and the simple peasant lad.

In August, Nikita Khrushchev arrived in Stalingrad as principal commissar – effectively Stalin’s representative in the city. Bob Hoskins gives a hammy and barely believable performance as the leading Party official, more like a comic performance from The Death of Stalin than from a war movie.

Enemy gives Khrushchev a leading role in the action that follows. In reality, although Khrushchev’s presence in the city throughout the battle was important (and he was very proud of it for the rest of his career), his role was far less significant than that of General Vasily Chuikov, who took command of the city’s defence but who gets no mention in the film.

To please Khrushchev, Danilov comes up with the idea of boosting the morale of the defenders by promoting heroes among them. He starts with Zaitsev, a poor peasant farmer from the Urals. This begins the central element of the film. Zaitsev joins a Sniper Battalion and goes out hunting with a small team of two or three in the ruins of the city. The trick, wherever possible, was to capture the name tags of the dead soldier as proof of the ‘kill’.

Zaitsev soon becomes a local hero among the defenders as his number of kills soars. His photograph then appears in the Soviet press, stories about him feature on the radio, and he becomes a national hero. In no time, he is one of the most celebrated men in the Red Army, and his feats are a huge boost to morale.

The Germans become worried about Zaitsev’s success, and the head of the Wehrmacht Sniper School arrives to take him on. Major König is coolly portrayed by Ed Harris. It will be a great propaganda triumph if König can kill Zaitsev, and he is confident he can. So begins the central duel of the film. According to Antony Beevor in his seminal book Stalingrad (1998), no such duel ever took place, although the role played by snipers among the Red Army was without doubt important.

Obviously thinking this duel would not be enough to keep a 21st-century audience hooked, the filmmakers invent another narrative strand. Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz) is a local girl who has returned from university in Moscow to do her bit for the defence of the city. Both Danilov and Zaitsev take a fancy to her. Danilov gets her transferred out of the front-line to a safer job as a radio operator in military headquarters. But she eventually returns to a fighting role and begins an affair with Zaitsev.

LEFT The ruins of Stalingrad in the aftermath of the battle, early 1943. inset Vasily Zaitsev during the battle. Once a simple farming boy from the Urals, his lethal skills made him a hero throughout the Soviet Union.
The ruins of Stalingrad in the aftermath of the battle, early 1943.

Weisz gives a good performance and in one scene movingly describes the murder of her parents by the Nazis. She is credible as a front-line soldier, and the Red Army did use women in a range of fighting roles, but, frankly, the whole storyline seems highly improbable, and is especially unbelievable when she goes out in the rubble of the city in search of a hiding Zaitsev – and always manages to find him.


In late September and October 1942, the battle for Stalingrad was centred on the factory area, four huge pre-war industrial complexes that stretched for six miles along the bank of the Volga: a tractor factory, an armaments plant, a metalworks, and a chemical factory. All of them had been devastated in the shelling and bombing.

The rest of the action takes place in this blasted landscape. Using the relatively small number of authentic photos from this phase of the battle, the set designers created a remarkably powerful and desolate space that looks very like the photo record. The Germans called the fighting here Rattenkrieg – ‘rat warfare’.

In the first few phases of the duel, König manages to kill the assistants Zaitsev is out ‘hunting’ with, but Zaitsev himself always gets away. This destroys Zaitsev’s self-belief. He tells Danilov, who continues to make him a superhero, that ‘you promise a victory that I cannot deliver’. The sniper says: ‘I don’t stand a chance against this man’. But Danilov persuades him to continue.

The game of hide and seek between the German sniper ace and the Russian hero continues through many twists and turns. The film compellingly strips warfare down to a bare duel between two men against a backdrop of the appalling destruction of the industrial district.

By November, as the weather worsens, it is the Germans who are losing hope. The commander of the 6th Army, General von Paulus (Matthias Habich) tells König that the battle continues only because Hitler has become obsessed with victory in the city that bears the name of the Soviet leader. Paulus tells König he must return to Berlin. The Germans are confident that Zaitsev has been killed, but König believes he is still alive. The film climaxes in one final, highly dramatic duel between the two men.

Vasily Zaitsev during the battle. Once a simple farming boy from the Urals, his lethal skills made him a hero throughout the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, Tania, who has been ordered to withdraw from the city, is hit by shell-fire. Everyone believes she is dead. But has she survived and, if so, will Zaitsev manage to find her?

The film ends with a summary conclusion of the battle. At the beginning of February, von Paulus – surrounded and cut off – surrenders. The once-mighty 6th Army shambles through the snow and ice into captivity. It is a huge triumph for the Red Army. A final caption tells us that Zaitsev was made a Hero of the Soviet Union. And his rifle is, to this day, on display in the Stalingrad Museum.

Enemy at the Gates without doubt captures the destruction and chaos of the brutal fighting in Stalingrad. Guided by photographs of the time, the film creates a realistic impression of the desolation of the combat zone, replete with wrecked industrial hardware and shattered brick buildings that were barely worth fighting over, let alone dying for.

In this sense, Enemy captures an important aspect of one of the toughest battles of the Second World War. Beyond this, it distorts the historical record, as with the commissars shooting down retreating soldiers and, indeed, the central duel of the film, which never actually took place.

Somehow, the leading figures always look a bit too clean, a little too well-made-up to be believable. And the storyline of the triangular love relationship between Danilov, Zaitsev, and Tania is trite and completely unnecessary.

Enemy at the Gates is worth watching as we mark the 80th anniversary of the seminal World War II battle – but you can fast-forward through some parts of its story. •

The Stalingrad snipers

In real life, Vasily Zaitsev (1915-1991) became one of the most famous soldiers in the Red Army. During the 25th anniversary celebrations of the October Revolution in 1942, Soviet propaganda seized on the story of the snipers in the ongoing and tense battle for Stalingrad in ‘a new wave of socialist competition for the largest number of Fritzes killed’.

Zaitsev helped create a whole new cult of the sniper, although he did not in fact have the highest number of kills. During the October Revolution anniversary, Zaitsev achieved the total of 149 lethal shots. Another sniper, named Zikan, had killed 224 Germans at this time. But it was Zaitsev, with his simple peasant farming background in the Urals, who won the hearts of the Soviet people.

Zaitsev went on to kill a total of 225 Germans before the end of the Battle of Stalingrad. He was then put in charge of training young snipers in the murderous art of staking out and waiting for victims to appear in the sights of their rifles.

The cult of ‘sniperism’ spread to other units in the Red Army, as soldiers developed their own techniques to attract their ‘prey’. One killer set up a system of attaching a lever to a white flag, and when he pulled the lever from a distance the white flag went up. Nearly always a German soldier would appear from his trench to call out ‘Rus komm’ and the sniper would shoot him down.

On reaching 40 kills, a sniper became the equivalent of a fighter pilot ‘ace’ by being given a ‘For Bravery’ medal and granted the status of ‘Noble Sniper’.

In his memoirs, Zaitsev wrote he had taken part in a three-day duel with the head of a German sniper school, but the historian Antony Beevor has said that there is no evidence for this in the Soviet archives, which would doubtless have recorded such a significant confrontation. Therefore, the conclusion must be that such a duel did not take place.

Produced, directed, and co-written by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Co-written by Alain Godard, based on the book by William Craig. Starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, and Ed Harris. Distributed by Paramount and Pathé.

Images: Wikimedia Commons.