Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Enemy at the Gates – Blu-Ray review

A few years after Saving Private Ryan provided a blueprint for the modern era World War II film, French director Jean-Jacques Annaud followed up his large scale Brad Pitt vehicle, Seven Years in Tibet, with a large-scale story from a side of the conflict that Americans hadn’t had much exposure to – the dreaded Eastern Front. Details regarding the Battle of Stalingrad – which took place between July 1942 and February 1943 – can quickly dispel any notion of WWII being a clean war, with some 2 million causalities suffered among the German and Soviet armies, and the civilian population of the city. The Soviet army emerged triumphant when Field Marshal Paulus (promoted by Hitler with the tacit understanding that he would either continuing to uselessly waste the starving 6th Army in fruitless fighting or take his own life) defied orders and surrendered. Director Annaud brings these desperate days to life on a massive scale utilizing the purportedly true (yet decidedly sketchy) story of a Russian sniper’s duel to the death with his German counterpart in the burnt-out husk of Stalin’s namesake city.

After a flashback where we see young Vassili Zaitsev as a child being taught how to silently hunt wolves with a scoped rifle, but when we first see the adult Vassili (now played by Jude Law) he’s being ferried across the Volga a roiling cauldron of death – the Battle of Stalingrad. As Germans forces threaten to encircle the city, the Soviet Union is throwing into battle the one natural resource still at their disposal – men. In this spectacular opening sequence, we follow Vassili across the river while German planes relentlessly strafe the helpless men, mercilessly crowded onto slow moving boats that may as well have targets painted on their roofs. After being in one of the “lucky” boats that actually make it across, Vassili is greeted with the further good news that only every other man is to be given a rifle – and instructed that “when the one with the rifle is killed, the other man picks it up!” Within moments after his arrival, he is thrown into a hopeless battle where the majority of the men that he crossed with are cut down by German machine gun fire. The handful of man that survive attempt to limp back to their own line are shot down by political officers as cowards and traitors. Vassili manages to hide amidst the film’s recreation of the Barmaley Fountain where he is found sometime later by Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) who Vassili saves by scoring headshots on several nearby Germans. Pushed by the newly arrived commanding General Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) for a new way of inspiring fear into the men, Danilov instead suggests inspiring the men with tales of a hero, a hero he happens to know. Following Vassili’s example Soviet snipers begin taking out large numbers of enemy officers, so the Germans send in the head of their sniper school, Major Konig (Ed Harris) to hunt down Vassili while one of the bloodiest battles in history rages around them.

Annaud certainly seemed like an unusual choice for the material, but his specialty in films like The Lover, Quest for Fire, and Seven Years in Tibet all presented intimate stores against vast canvases. His last film before Enemy was Wings of Courage, the first narrative film shot in IMAX 3D, so Annaud’s visual senses were certainly keyed up for the production. Enemy at the Gates creates one of the most vivid, believable recreations of a major battle that we’ve ever seen; the burnt, blasted out husk of Stalingrad was painstakingly built from the ground up and gave Annaud an appropriately grim palate from which to bring the story to life. It’s almost impossible now to decipher how much of the famous sniper duel between Zaitsev and Konig was real and how much is surviving Soviet propaganda. Vassili certainly existed, but wasn’t quite the stammering youth portrayed here (the real Zaitsev actually ran the Soviet Sniper school in Stalingrad) but there are significant doubts as to Konig’s role in the battle.

As with many films dealing with war, acute characterizations aren’t always on the menu. Law and Fiennes are both quite good, and were both blessedly allowed to merely flatten their native British accents, rather than adopt Russian ones. Law plays Zaitsev as a wide-eyed country boy who is dazzled by Danilov’s promise of fame, and is quite good in later scenes when fear of Konig begins to get the better of him. Fiennes gets the more interesting role, though, as his Danilov is torn between his growing friendship with Zaitsev and his feelings towards a young woman, Tania (Rachel Weisz) who just happens to have eyes for Vassili. Weisz is fine but the role, but the love triangle that she represents the fulcrum of feels terribly out of place; 50s-era war movie melodrama that severely contradicts the ultra-realistic surroundings. Harris may have seemed like an unusually odd casting choice as a German master sniper, but with accents largely off the menu, he comes off very well. His duels with Law form the engine of the picture and are exceedingly well-handled by Annaud. Both men acquire as much intelligence about the other’s position as possible, pick their hiding places, and wait for the other man to make a mistake; Annaud imbues these sequences with almost unbearable suspense using little more than the concentration on Law and Harris’ faces and their POV through the scope. There’s also great supporting work by Bob Hoskins, menacing and clever in turn as Khrushchev and Ron Perlman as one of Vassili’s fellow Russian snipers.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray appears to be from the same master as their previous DVD edition, though this time with the added detail that the 1080p format allows. By necessity, the picture uses a dour, grey color palette which made the picture on the previous DVD look a bit on the dull side. The Blu-Ray offers a definite improvement and accurately represents the film’s unusually bleak photography. All extras from the SD-DVD have been ported over, but only the theatrical trailer is in HD

Through the Crosshairs – 19:36: Standard EPK fare which is narrated like a 20min trailer, featuring on-set interviews with the director and cast.

Inside Enemy at the Gates – 15:01: A shortened version of the first documentary, replacing on-set interviews with footage taken from the films press junket.

Deleted Scenes – 10:13: A selection of deleted and extended scenes, featuring some that would have better fleshed out the main characters. Taken from a video source and in rough shape.

Theatrical Trailer – 2:28