Some years ago, I read Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad, by William Craig, an account of the biggest and bloodiest battle in the history of WWII, if not the history of mankind. A sprawling nonfiction epic of the engagement that marks the turning point of the Second World War, the book details the five-and-a-half-month-long urban fighting that reduced the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) to ruins, resulted in the destruction of Germany’s Sixth Army, resulted in as many as two million lives wounded, killed or captured. To historians familiar with the battle, there are many familiar elements in Craig’s book, such as the engagements in the city’s grain elevator tractor works, a fortified building simply called “Pavlov’s House,” and more. But the part that engrossed me the most was a passage of just a few pages that described a days-long duel between Soviet sniper Vasily Zaytsev (ultimately credited with 225 kills during the course of the battle), and a German sniper who was apparently dispatched to eliminate Vasily specifically. Some of the details of that confrontation have since been challenged by other historians, but they make for a hell of a story, especially by cinematic standards. Thus arose Enemy at the Gates, a French-American production of a fictionalized version of Zaytsev’s “sniper’s duel.”
The story begins early in the battle for Stalingrad, as Nazi forces have all but captured the city, and have pushed Soviet forces into thin slivers of resistance upon the Volga river. We watch as Vasily himself—the son of a hunter who we learn would later be executed for his ownership of a firearm—is thrust into a human wave attack against a fortified Nazi position. When the attack inevitably fails, the panicked Soviets who retreat are cut down by their own political officers, who seem strangely more motivated to kill their own countrymen than to destroy Nazi. Vasily survives the onslaught by hiding among corpses, along with fellow survivor Danilov, a political officer. After receiving permission to receive Danilov’s rifle, Vasily snipes an entire group of Nazi in just a few moments, providing a rare moment of victorious heroism when the Soviets need it the most. Meanwhile, the Soviets have decided that they will defend this city to the last, and so begins a brutal counterattack that must succeed at all costs. Here, Vasily excels as a sniper, and becomes both a bane to the Nazi invaders, and a hero to his own people. But this has unexpected consequences, as the Nazis deploy aristocratic officer and supreme marksman Major Erwin König to the city with the sole purpose of finding and killing Vasily. Meanwhile, Vasily finds himself caught within the gears of the Soviet propaganda machine, tasked with defeating his German nemesis or else. Along the way, he engages in a romance with Tania, a Stalingrad citizen whom he recruits as a sniper, and who helps him in the battle against König. By the time it’s all over the cast of characters, like much of the city, lie in ruins. This is a war story where even the winners are losers on both a large and small scale.
This is not a perfect movie. By many standards, it’s not even a good movie, really. There’s a certain irony to the fact that at the time of this movie’s production, it was the most expensive European film effort on record, but most of that money was spent making rubble for set design. Inexplicably, everybody in the story speaks with an English accent except for the German, who speaks in an American one. The romance between Vasily and Tania doesn’t play well, and the rivalry between Vasily and Danilov plays even worse. And there is the very real issue of how the movie plays fast and loose with history for the sake of making what is essentially a popcorn movie dressed up as a serious war epic.
But still, there remains a compelling story of a couple of guys thrown into a meat grinder by powers much larger than themselves, knowing that whatever comes of their own conflict, they are just tiny pawns in something that neither one of them can stop. For both, there can be no survival without victory, and they each know that neither one is all that likely to come out of this thing standing. The more we see Vasily and König circle each other, the more we get the feeling that both are grateful for having a very personal enemy to focus on. Somehow, it pushes the much wider and deeper horror of their situation to the side, and for these few days, while their lives balance on the point of a single bullet, they are in a strange sort of reprieve.
The moment of truth comes early in the film, when Koulikov—a Russian who has studied marksmanship under König while living in Germany before the war—is dispatched to help Vasily. Koulikov tells of how he was brutally interrogated and tortured by Soviet secret police for having lived with the Germans for so long, and displays how his teeth were all knocked out with a hammer in the process. Vasily needs no reminder of Soviet tenderness, having so narrowly survived the human wave slaughter that opened the movie. We might be meant to despite Hitler in this story, but we’re sure not meant to like Stalin just for having opposed him. The scene suggests that in all wars, there are heroes on both sides, but in any war, just because there are two sides doesn’t mean that one of them is right. The movie’s views on Soviet coercion in the war won it no friends among Russian audiences, especially for how it disregards those ordinary folk who defended their country of their own accord. But it did underscore that truth that the person who defends something behind him always fights harder than the person who is merely attacking what’s in front of him.