Political Film Society - Newsletter #99 - March 17, 2001

March 17, 2001


Enemy at the GatesWhen Nazi Germany was at the pinnacle of its power in 1942, the only adversary left on the European continent was the Soviet Union, and the path to German control of the oil-rich Caucasus lay through the city of Stalingrad. Now Jean-Jacques Annaud, whose Seven Years in Tibet won the Political Film Society award for best film on peace in 1997, has directed an epic masterpiece on the Battle of Stalingrad, history's most devastating bloodbath, in Enemy at the Gates. At the center of the movie is Vasili Zaitsov (played by Jude Law), a sniper (formerly a shepherd in the Urals) who picked off key German officers and was extolled by the Soviet propaganda machine in order to encourage other Russians to make sacrifices to defend the motherland. The tagline of the film is "Some men are born to be heroes." The film begins almost as a clone of the battle scene that opens Saving Private Ryan (1998). We see that Zaitsov nearly died in that battle as cannon fodder, since he was not initially issued a rifle; pinned down in a sea of dead bodies, political officer Danilov (played by Joseph Fiennes) gave him his rifle, witnessed his skill, and produced the propaganda that made Zaitsov famous. According to the film, Danilov's idea to lionize Zaitsov impressed Nikita Khrushchëv (played by Bob Hoskins), the key Communist Party official in charge of the Stalingrad operation, who in turn honored Zaitsov. In order to make a fascinating film, some liberties were taken with the story, which is based on a book with the same title by Stanford historian Gordon Craig. The head of the German sniper school, Major König (played by Ed Harris), is dispatched to eliminate Zaitsov, so most of the action part of the film consists of their cat-and-mouse game. There is also a love triangle in which Tania (played by Rachel Weisz) falls in love with Zaitsov, though Danilov also pursues her.

Danilov tries to trump Zaitsov, appealing to that fact that both he and Tania are Jewish and educated, but in vain. At one point Danilov sends his rival to what appears to be a trap, a leaf out of King David's worst sin, and he even contemplates denouncing Zaitsov, but ultimately he accepts the fact that Tania prefers Zaitsov. After a farcical admission that the Soviets failed to achieve a perfect society, Danilov sacrifices himself so that Zaitsov will finish off König. During the Russian evacuation of Stalingrad, Tania and Zaitsov are separated, but reunited at the end of the film. In case filmviewers mistakenly believe that Zaitsov is a cinematic equivalent of Lieutenant Kije (as the film score is reminiscent of Prokofiev's music), titles at the end tell us that Zaitsov's rifle is on display in the Leningrad Museum and thus that the film is about a true Russian hero. (Indeed, credited by the Soviets with killing 242 Germans, he is the only Russian whose surname is pronounced correctly in the film.) However, the implication that Zaitsov was crucial in the defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad, a battle that cost more than one million lives, is quite misleading. With a half million Germans in Stalingrad surrounded by the Russian army, Hitler seriously blundered in deciding not to spare troops to break the siege in the belief that the invincible German army would prevail by spring 1943. Instead, the Russian winter sealed the fate of the beleaguered troops, who surrendered long before the snow melted, lacking food. MH

At the annual Western Political Science Association convention, the Political Film Society again sponsored a successful panel. Two excellent papers are now available. Bob Beatty and Robert Youngblood have donated a syllabus about films on Asia, available in the Syllabus Series for $1, and Hans Noel, Escape from the Bowling Alley: Traditional Associations as the Antagonist in Popular American Film is a Working Paper for $5.