OK, another movie review. Good news to the younger generation. This one has sound and is in color.
I got interested in this movie because it was supposedly about the Battle of Stalingrad and especially about the legendary sniper wars of that engagement. First, for the younger generation again, here is the historical background.
Adolph Hitler grew up despising Eastern Europeans and especially Asians. Jews, Poles, Czechs and Russians were all targets of his disdain. He considered communism a natural evil, and street fighting between Nazis and communists marked the early rise of the National Socialist Party in post World War I Germany. From the beginning Hitler plotted the destruction of the Soviet Union and the enslavement of eastern peoples. It was never any secret that Hitler and Joseph Stalin bore bitter, personal, mutual animosity.
So, when, in 1939, Hitler set out to make war he first established a non-aggression pact with Stalin. The Germans would invade and occupy western Poland. The Soviets would grab the remainder.
As some of you may know, Great Britain and France had a treaty of protection with Poland, and they made good on their promise three days after the German army invaded Poland. The Brits and the French did not make immediate moves against Germany, but they were a constant irritation with their mechanizations toward Norway, neutral at the time. It became apparent that Germany was willing to spread the war when its army invaded and occupied Norway and Denmark in the spring of 1940. The dominoes continued to fall as the Germans next invaded and occupied The Netherlands and Belgium in May. The onslaught continued as the Wehrmacht rolled onward, invading and quickly defeating France in June. British and French troops trapped against the English Channel in Northern France executed a frantic escape to England with many soldiers surrendering and all heavy equipment lost.
At this point Hitler fully expected Great Britain to negotiate an end to the hostilities. Hitler was not planning on conquering England, just yet. In response to Hitler’s overtures British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued a stinging response:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Churchill had thrown the gauntlet. There would be no accommodation. This would be a fight to the finish. Hitler responded by preparing an invasion fleet, and Hermann Göring, commander of the German air force, undertook the destruction of the British air force. He failed. The Luftwaffe was severely blunted in it’s attacks on British fighter fields and English cities. Furthermore, the Brits responded by bombing Berlin. Germany dismantled its invasion fleet and fell back on the systematic bombing of English cities, and the war rolled on into 1941.
Sometime in 1941 Hitler apparently looked at a calendar and said, “Oh, shit. I was supposed to be invading the Soviet Union.” The Wehrmacht turned east, and the nonaggression pact evaporated like a snowflake in the muzzle of a cannon. At this point reality began to set in. The German advance was stopped again. Christmas of 1941 saw German soldiers within sight of the towers of Moscow. They never advanced farther than this in all the war.
The battle on the Easter Front was about the meanest meat grinder of all time. The Germans hated the Russians, and the favor was returned. At first Soviet citizens saw the invaders as liberators. At last they would be free of that animal Stalin. However, the Germans slaughtered conquered civilians wherever convenient and shipped entire food supplies from subjugated regions. Twenty million starved to death. That was round one.
In 1942 Hitler continued his eastern campaign, shifting southeast to capture the oil fields of Romania and the Middle East. In one of his many moments of insanity, Hitler ordered Friedrich Paulus to take his Sixth Army and capture Stalingrad. Stalingrad was previously known as Volgograd (Volga City), because it was on the Volga River. Most believe Hitler’s vanity led to this needless attack on the city named after his arch enemy.
And that brings us to the movie of the day.
I had previously read a book about the Battle of Stalingrad and the sniper wars. Enemy at the Gates features the character of a real person, Vasily Zaytsev, who became famous as one of the Soviet snipers in the battle. From that point on the story becomes almost pure fiction.
In the first scenes Zaytsev and other Soviet troops are herded like cattle into the battle. Armed political officers shoot soldiers who try to evade the murderous German aircraft gunfire by jumping into the Volga. There are not enough rifles for the newly-arrived troops, but all are given an ammunition clip and instructions to get rifles from soldiers who are killed. A frontal assault on a German position results in almost 100% casualties as soldiers who retreat from the slaughter are killed by Soviet troops in place for this purpose. Zaytsev is one of the survivors, and he teams up with a political commissar to wipe out a party of Germans who tarry too long near the field of dead. Zaytsev and the commissar then embark on a program to make Zaytsev famous in order to build morale among the troops.
Nikita Khrushchev makes an appearance about this time, as he did in the actual battle, and takes over the defense of the city. This he does after giving the previous commander a pistol and some privacy “to avoid the red tape.” Khrushchev accepts the idea of using icons like Zaytsev to build morale, and Zaytsev continues his career of cutting down Germans who are foolish enough to expose themselves. The plot goes on to develop the story of Zaytsev’s days-long duel with German Major Erwin König, supposedly head of a sniper school who was sent especially to kill Zaytsev.
At this point there is a similarity between the movie and the supposedly factual book I read about the battle. In the book, the final encounter between Zaytsev and König occurs in a destroyed rail yard. Zaytsev determines that König must be hiding beneath a sheet of metal among the debris. He sets up his shot, and a spotter offers the German a fake target of some sort. The German takes the shot, and when he moves his head up to confirm the kill, Zaytsev shoots him between the eyes.
In the movie, Zaytsev’s political commissar friend, despondent over the belief that a girlfriend has been killed, offers his own head for a target. After killing the commissar, König comes out of hiding to confirm the kill and is then killed by Zaytsev.
All well and good and very dramatic, but it never happened. The Stalingrad Battle museum displays König’s telescopic site, but there is no evidence that such a man ever existed or that such a duel ever took place.
All the action in the movie takes place in the fall of 1942. Shortly after, in November, Soviet troops cut off the German troops involved in the battle. Despite Göring’s claim that he could supply the German troops by air, there were never enough supplies delivered, and this route was eventually choked off by Soviet forces. Paulus surrendered all his remaining troops in January 1943 and was treated well by the Soviets. He died in 1957. The Soviets gave Paulus’ troops their standard treatment. Of about 90,000 who surrendered, only about 6000 ever saw Germany again. Vasily Zaytsev survived the war and died a hero in 1991, ten days before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
I once worked with a guy who told me his father had fought in the war. I asked him where he had fought, and he told me, “On the Easter Front.” I told him he was damned lucky to be alive.
The movie is true to one point, as far as it goes. For a sniper sharpshooting is essential. Equally essential, maybe more so, is concealment. There are several episodes featured on The History Channel and other places that tell of the training and exploits of modern snipers. They all emphasize concealment. In a confrontation between military forces it becomes quickly apparent when a sniper starts operating in the area. People start dropping unexpectedly with single, fatal wounds. The first immediate action is that people quit exposing themselves. The second immediate action is to call for sniper teams to hunt down and kill the enemy sniper. The lesson is that a sniper who wants to be around for a while will not take more than one shot from the same position. This is emphasized in the movie.
In the book I previously referenced, a team of Soviet snipers lead by a woman was momentarily careless. They opened up too quickly on a squad of Germans soldiers and failed to kill all of them. A survivor quickly reported their position, and mortar fire killed many of the team before they could make their getaway.
Anyhow, the world of sniper warfare provides high drama and tension enough to keep the viewer seated. The story is by William Craig, who wrote a book of the same title in 1973. This does not appear to be the book I read over 30 years ago. Excerpts on Google Books have more the style of a novel and less of a straight documentary.
Early in my life I was present at a sniper attack, and when I look back I realize I could have learned some valuable lessons if I had seen the movie or read the book first. People continue to point out to me that I am not the sharpest tool in the box, and that day was not one of my better moments. I was completely clueless. My wife and I could hear the gunfire, but neither of us identified it. Somebody had to come into where we were and tell us to take cover.
Of course we did not. I, for one, had to take a peek. How many ways are there to spell “stupid.” While I was taking my peek the sniper killed another person from about three blocks away. At that point it because obvious that if I could see him, he could kill me. It was one of several times in my life I have been scared shitless.
The nearest cover was on the other side of a sunlit street. Naturally we made a dash for it. Stupid again! My thinking at the time was that if I did not pause I would not make a suitable target. And the sniper had a college campus to choose from.
In this case the sniper did not move after taking a shot. He was immobile atop the University of Texas clock tower, and he was suicidal, anyhow. He just kept firing away until police worked there way to his position and killed him at close range. Since the sniper did not move, my wife and I did the only intelligent thing we can report for the day. We got out of the vicinity and listened to the finish on the radio. Some who did not eventually could not.
Jude Law is Vasily Zaytsev. Joseph Fiennes is Commissar Danilov. Rachel Weisz is Tania Chernova. Bob Hoskins is Nikita Khrushchev. First rate actor Ed Harris is Major Erwin König.