Film Review: Enemy at the Gates
By Roger Reese
Roger Reese is associate professor of history at Texas A&M University. His research and publishing specialties are Soviet social and military history, particularly of the Stalin era. He is the author of Stalin's Reluctant Soldiers: A Social History of the Red Army, 1925-1941 (1996) and The Soviet Military Experience: A History of the Soviet Army, 1917-1991 (2000).
The movie Enemy at the Gates, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Jude Law, Ed Harris, Rachel Weisz and Joseph Fiennes is a fictionalized account of the true story of Vasilii Zaitsev, a Soviet sniper who won fame during the battle of Stalingrad. The action in the movie revolves around the duel between Zaitsev and a German sniper sent out to eliminate him. In the process the director uses the battle of Stalingrad to illustrate the horrors of the Nazi-Soviet conflict primarily from the view of the Soviet soldier which of itself is a useful corrective to the overwhelmingly German perspective of the Russo-German conflict in both film and print.
In the beginning of the movie Zaitsev is in a boxcar crowded with soldiers who are disgorged amidst great confusion and disorganization on the east bank of the Volga, rushed like cattle onto boats for a daylight trip across the river to reinforce the units in the city proper. The river crossing is a hellish scene as the boats are bombed and strafed by German dive bombers with graphically portrayed loss of life of Soviet soldiers and may have been inspired by a passage from Konstantin Simonov's novel Days and Nights. Once the men reach the far shore the scene becomes even more confused as the men are rushed straight into battle after a small number of them are given rifles and the rest one clip of ammunition with instructions for the unarmed to pick up the rifles of the fallen - this perhaps inspired by Gabriel Temkin's My Just War: the Memoir of a Jewish Red Army Soldier in World War II. The attack is an unmitigated disaster as the new men are mowed down by German soldiers. When the attack falters and men begin to retreat an NKVD "blocking detachment" machine guns them until there are no apparent survivors. All the while political officers are exhorting the men to do their utmost for Stalin and the motherland, shouting through megaphones, which adds a surreal quality to the feeling of chaos. Zaitsev, of course, survives this attack by laying in a pile of corpses right under the Germans' noses.
Subsequently a political officer is introduced into the story. He takes it upon himself to manipulate Zaitsev and his sharpshooting skills to elevate himself in the eyes of his political superiors. Soon thereafter a female soldier enters the picture and becomes the love interest of both men. At the end of the movie (and in real life) Zaitsev gets the best of the German.
What those unfamiliar with the Soviet side of Second World War will learn from this movie is that the director got many aspects correct in a general sense. Men were often thrown into combat from the march with little or no orientation to the combat situation or formal integration into an established unit and that attacks made under such circumstances usually failed with catastrophic loss of life. They will learn that snipers were regularly employed in large numbers, both male and female, and were highly productive and well regarded during the war. They will learn that junior ranking political officers served in the front lines and suffered the same fate as officers and men. That women served alongside men at the front and did become entangled in romantic relationships is also accurate. Also true was the use of blocking detachments of troops of the Peoples' Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) to shoot soldiers retreating without authorization.
On the other hand, this movie gets some things wrong. The director has Nikita Khrushchev in charge of the battle from a bunker in Stalingrad. True, Khrushchev was on the military soviet of the Stalingrad Front, but he did not play a prominent role in orchestrating the battle; in fact once the front headquarters came under German fire in the early phases of the battle Khrushchev personally begged Stalin for permission to evacuate the headquarters to the far side of the Volga. There is no mention of Marshal Yeremenko who did command the front or of General Chuikov who directed the 62nd Army in the battle for Stalingrad. Other than a fictitious general who commits suicide in the beginning of the movie under pressure from Khrushchev, the military chain of command does not exist in the movie. There were no sergeants or officers to receive the men when they got off the boats nor to lead them into battle. Zaitsev seems to operate with no supervision other than that of the political officer. This is seriously inaccurate. One also may wonder why although we are given two women snipers, they never shoot anyone, whereas in fact Soviet women snipers are credited with over ten thousand enemy killed. The movie erroneously credits the political officer with coming up with the idea to stop using punitive measures against defeated and demoralized Soviet soldiers and instead creating heroes for them to give them hope. The army had begun promoting heroes as role models in the first week of the war, and although NKVD blocking detachments had existed from the beginning of the war, only in August 1942, weeks before the battle for Stalingrad began, did Stalin issue the highly unpopular Order no. 227 for "not one step backward" requiring the army to form its own blocking detachments in each regiment.
As for Zaitsev himself we do not learn as much about him as is warranted for the protagonist of a film. Other than for his skill as a marksman he remains as devoid of individuality as the average Russian soldier depicted in our histories of the war in the east. He is portrayed as a callow young man, though he was older than average, being born to a peasant family in March 1915 making him 27 years old during the battle. He had been serving in the Navy since 1936, held the rank of Junior Lieutenant, was a candidate member of the Communist Party, and had volunteered to go to Stalingrad from his post in the Pacific fleet in October 1942 along with several thousand others. Of them only a few dozen would survive. Zaitsev is credited with 225 kills during the battle and for his efforts he was made a Hero of the Soviet Union, their highest military honor.
As a work of fictionalized history this movie serves a useful purpose beyond entertainment, that of bringing to the attention of movie-goers in the West the sacrifices Soviet soldiers made in defending their country and defeating Hitler and giving a face to those legions still largely anonymous to us.