During 1942 the battle for the Russian city of Stalingrad is at its height. As the German 6th Army tightens its grip, the beleaguered defenders lose hope despite the best efforts of Russian Political Officer Danilov (JOSEPH FIENNES). After a chance encounter with the newly arrived young soldier Vassili Zaitsev (JUDE LAW), in which Zaitsev kills five German soldiers with a rifle, Danilov realizes that here is a man who could become a national hero and help bring Russia back from the brink of defeat.
With the aid of Political Commissar Nikita Khrushchev (BOB HOSKINS) who is personally overseeing the city defences, Danilov recruits Zaitsev into a sniper unit.
Eager to break the new found resistance within Stalingrad, the Germans draft in a professional sniper of their own, the celebrated but cold Major Konig (an excellent ED HARRIS) with the mission to kill Zaitsev at all costs. What begins as a battle of nations soon becomes a deadly struggle of wits between two extraordinary men.
ENEMY AT THE GATES is based rather loosely on a true story. The main full-scale battle scenes - the Volga river crossing under aerial attack and failed Russian advance which ultimately sees Red Army soldiers shoot their own retreating countrymen - are over within the first fifteen minutes of the film. All the action which follows may be on a much smaller scale with few characters but is no less exciting for it. We are now drawn into the secret world of the sniper, one of constant danger and movement, of waiting for opportunities to venture into the rifle sights.
ANNAUD cranks up the tension during the sniper missions by giving first-person and crosshair views whenever possible and enjoys regular close-ups of LAW and HARRIS taking aim. Sadly the reliable RON PERLMAN has an all too brief role as veteran Russian sniper Koulikov, an interesting character with false teeth and a matter of fact outlook on the hostilities of life. I felt it a pity that PERLMAN is not given more screen time as he certainly deserves it.
The action is also offset and somewhat slowed by a love triangle storyline in the form of beautiful Russian patriot Tania Chernova (RACHEL WEISZ), who both Danilov and Zaitsev fall for. Here the educated Danilov uses his influence to not only make his rival look foolish in her presence, but his power sees Tania easily promoted to the political staff and, therefore, out of the clutches of the young sniper. Zaitsev takes his anger out on the enemy, adding many more victims to his tally of kills and greatly increasing his fame. Danilov realises that he can no longer control the propaganda machine he has set in motion and begins to feel jealously and then hatred towards his prodigy which can only lead to disaster for everyone concerned. Meanwhile the prowling Konig is drawing forever nearer to his quarry.
The campaign featured is one of the great turning points of the Second World War but has been badly neglected by film makers (an notable exception is the splendid German film STALINGRAD which is well worth viewing) and ANNAUD must be applauded for helping to bring the battle to a wider cinematic audience.
Special Features on the disc include Filmographies, the Original Theatrical Trailer, Storyboards for the river crossing, a Poster gallery and a highly informative ANNAUD audio commentary. There are two Making Of programmes (at 15 minutes and 20 minutes respectively) plus an excellent black and white French language documentary using archive footage of the battle of Stalingrad running at 26 minutes. Also included are eight cut scenes and a feature to include them into the original film so it may be viewed in its entirety.