Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 67 million dollar epic about the Battle of Stalingrad is usually considered a bad movie. It was booed at the Berlin International Film Festival. It was so poorly received in the former Soviet Union that an organization of Red Army veterans called for it to be banned. Peter Rainier at Rolling Stone wrote that “it’s as if an obsessed movie nut had decided to collect every bad war-movie convention on one computer and program it to spit out a script.”
Enemy at the Gates is a bad movie, but that begs the question. Has there ever been a good movie about the Battle of Stalingrad?
Fedor Bondarchuk’s 2013 Stalingrad was a gigantic hit in Russia, but I found it ludicrous propaganda for Vladimir Putin’s cultural conservatism.
Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1993 film was intelligent and well-made. It accurately depicted the agony of the German Sixth Army as it was encircled by the great Soviet counter offensive in the Winter of 1942. But it was an anti-war movie, not an anti-fascist movie. It tells us no more about the Soviet Union than The Deer Hunter tells us about the Vietnamese.
The main problem for a film about a battle like Stalingrad, or Gettysburg, or Verdun, or any great clash between mass, industrialized armies, is scale. Stalingrad was the largest battle in history. Over a million Russian soldiers were killed. An entire German Army group was outflanked, encircled, and annihilated. You can’t possibly get it all on screen. So you have to make a choice. Which part of the Battle of Stalingrad will you use to represent the whole?
Jean-Jacques Annaud decides to focus on the sniper Vasily Zaytsev. The first 20 minutes of Enemy at the Gates are excellent. Half the film’s 67 million dollar budget was spent on the (exciting if historically inaccurate) opening sequence, Zaytsev’s arrival in Stalingrad, and his regiment’s crossing the Volga under heavy German fire. But after that Enemy at the Gates just goes flat. Jude Law is miscast as the Russian peasant turned marksman. Rachel Weisz is ludicrously miscast as his fictional lover Tania Chernova. But a big budget film requires big stars. Post Heaven’s Gate, no Hollywood studio will fund a movie that costs 67 million dollars unless they know it’s going to make money. That means guaranteed box office draws like Law and Weisz, a pretty boy hero, and a heroine with the finely chiseled features of a high-fashion model.
Enemy at the Gates, to its credit, unlike Bondarchuk’s or Wilsmaier’s film, does portray the role women played at the Battle of Stalingrad. But does Weisz’s upper-middle-class Jewish intellectual, her love triangle with Zaytsev and Commissar Danilov, Joseph Fiennes, dramatize anything about women like the 1077 Anti-Aircraft Brigade, girls barely out of high-school who held off an entire Nazi Panzer division for the better part of a a day? Weisz is a good actor, but couldn’t they have at least smeared her makeup? Does Commissar Danilov’s final renunciation of the communist ideal give us any clue about why communism triumphed over fascism? Is Danilov even a credible representation of a Soviet Army “political officer?” Even the sniper duel between Zaytsev and a Major Koenig, Ed Harris, is tedious and badly paced. If there’s one thing a big budget Hollywood studio production should be able to do well, it’s a gun fight. But Jean-Jacques Annaud drops the ball. Perhaps Mandalay Films should have hired Quentin Tarantino or John Woo.
In other words, I’ve seen Stalingrad (2013), Stalingrad (1993) and Enemy at the Gates (2001), three major, big budget films, and I have yet to see a good movie about the most important battle in history. The first is a right-wing piece of junk. The second is a decent “war is hell” film. The third is just a dud. No film about Stalingrad, as far as I know, captures the great Soviet victory over fascism, and have no illusions. If it wasn’t for Zhukov’s counteroffensive in 1943, we’d all be speaking German. The Russians saved all of our asses. Surely it’s worth at least one good movie.
But I doubt it will ever happen. Hollywood was purged of Communist Party members in the 1950s. Since then, there have been a lot of good American anti-war films about the war in Vietnam. But the capitalist film industry probably won’t get much more progressive than the idea that “war is hell.” Nobody, as far as I know, has tried to make a film about Ho Chi Minh or General Giap. The best American films about the Second World War, like Robert Aldrich’s Attack, cynically deconstruct the kind of propaganda Spielberg serves up in Saving Private Ryan. But deconstructing self-serving American propaganda and accurately portrarying the communist victory over fascism are two entirely different things. I suppose I’ll just have to dust off my copy of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, and start reading.