Is War Hell, Or What?

When was the last time you saw a World War II movie where a map of Europe is darkened by the spreading stain of the advancing German Army? When did you last hear such dialogue as “Comrade commissar has been overgenerous” or “We will lure the wolf out of his lair”? Enemy at the Gates has all this and more: It’s as if an obsessed movie nut had decided to collect every bad war-movie convention on one computer and program it to spit out a script. Director and co-screenwriter Jean-Jacques Annaud, whose last hot-air balloon was Seven Years in Tibet, certainly has a fondness, a nostalgia, for old-time clichés. What he hasn’t discovered is a way to make them new. His latest movie is mighty musty.

The film’s backdrop is the Battle of Stalingrad (1942-43), where some 2 million soldiers and civilians died during seven months of fighting in what is generally agreed to have been the turning point of the war. That’s right, you heard me: This is the backdrop. The foreground is taken up with an extended shoot-out between real-life hero Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), a shepherd boy from the Urals and an expert sniper, and his German counterpart, Major Konig (Ed Harris), a nobleman whose cobalt-blue eyes look like they could shoot bullets all by themselves. A naïf who barely knows how to spell, Vassili is transformed into a national hero by Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a propagandist whose life he saved during a bombardment in Stalingrad. By bringing Konig into the war zone, the Nazis hope to nip this shepherd-boy myth in the bud and roll victoriously eastward. Good as he is, Vassili is convinced he’s met his match with the steely major. He’s right to feel that way: Vassili, after all, rolls his own cigarettes, while Konig’s come pre-rolled and tipped with gold paper.

There’s something more than a bit perverse in making this intimate sniperfest the core of the action while the fates of Europe and the world hang in the balance. The film’s promo might as well read: russia vs. germany! this time it’s personal!! By paring everything down to the two guys, Annaud is overloading his symbolism. He’s sanctifying Vassili as the personification of the victorious Russian national spirit while Konig represents the decadence of Hun nobility. Danilov trumpets the rivalry between the men as a class war in microcosm, and we’re supposed to recoil from his shrillness. But this is what Annaud is trumpeting, too. Vassili is being ill-used by the Soviet propaganda machine, and Annaud makes the same ill use of him.

Any movie in which Bob Hoskins plays Nikita Khrushchev is bound to have credibility problems, but at least he’s kept, along with the Battle of Stalingrad, in the background. A much bigger credibility gap – bigger even than the impeccably Brit-accented Fiennes, or Rachel Weisz as a Russian civil-defense volunteer who reads Goethe in the original tongue – is the casting of Jude Law as a Russian peasant. It’s not just that we associate Law with a movie like The Talented Mr. Ripley, where he seemed embossed with luxe privilege. Plenty of actors have been able to successfully shuttle between rags and tuxes. (Henry Fonda could do The Grapes of Wrath and The Lady Eve within a year of one another and be absolutely convincing in both.) More problematic is that Law doesn’t project the simple innocence required by the role, or its mythic, poster-art largeness either. His features are too fine-cut to have spent all those cruel winters in the Urals, and he doesn’t even have dishpan hands, let alone a farm boy’s. It’s a pity Vassili and Konig never actually spend any real face time together because, if they did, Konig might well recognize a fellow aristocrat.

Ed Harris at first appears miscast, too, except that, in present company, he seems retrofitted into his role by comparison. Harris has the power and presence here that his co-stars lack, and he steals the spotlight away from all those prating, peasanty Russians yearning to be free. Harris looks just right as a master marksman because throughout his career he’s always focused on other actors as if through crosshairs. Although Vassili was a real person, it is not absolutely certain that Konig ever existed. And yet it is Konig and not Vassili who seems to have once lived. His malevolence, at least, is authentic, while everything else, including the war going on around him in this misfire of a movie, seems like a Hollywood fabrication.

Like Enemy at the Gates, writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Memento is a compendium of a million other movies, but more successfully so. Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator whose wife, he claims, was raped and murdered. Searching for her killer becomes a puzzlement for him, since the injuries he sustained during the mêlée have left him with an amnesiac condition in which nothing post-murder sinks in for more than about fifteen minutes. So he takes Polaroids of the people and places he needs to remember and tattoos vital info – names, driver’s-license numbers – all over his torso. He’s a film-noir adventurer with the look of a circus freak. Nolan tells the story in roughly reverse chronological order, and we’re never quite sure if Leonard or any of the other characters, including Carrie-Anne Moss as a hard-bitten bar maid, are what they seem. It’s all pretty confusing, but then again, so were many of the classic film noirs. (The Big Sleep even made sport of its confusions.)

Nolan sustains an arty note of existential dread that probably will work better for noir-steeped film critics and overserious philosophy grad students than for general audiences, but he brings off a few brisk bravura moments. My favorite: a gun-blazing chase in which Leonard for a moment can’t remember if he’s the shooter or the target. As metaphors for life go, that one’s pretty good.

In brief: through the end of april, BAM Rose Cinemas is programming all of Jean Renoir’s films from the thirties, so I can’t pass up the chance to plug the March 26 showings of his infrequently revived 40-minute tragicomedy A Day in the Country, which ranks right up there with Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion. Along with The Postman segment from Satyajit Ray’s Two Daughters, it is, I think, the greatest short film ever made.

Enemy at the Gates
Directed and co-written by Jean-Jacques Annaud; starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, and Ed Harris.
Starring Guy Pearce.

Is War Hell, Or What?