Personal Reflection: “The Reds” as the Good Guys
I was about ten years old when my mother took the family to see Enemy at the Gates (2001). For one, this was the first time in my life that I was exposed to the Soviet Union as being the “good guys” rather than the place the “evil reds” in action movies came from. At the time, I had a rather typical understanding of the Second World War for a boy my age. From all of the John Wayne and other Hollywood films about it, as well as learning about the war in history class, my understanding was that the war was won by American GI’s landing in Normandy and single-handedly beating the Germans back beyond their own borders, then dropping a couple of big bombs on Japan to teach them a lesson about sinking ships in Hawaii. Yet here I was, sitting in a movie theater, seeing men and women flying red flags and wearing hammers and sickles, fighting the ultimate “bad guys.” Who were these people? Why don’t we talk about them more? Weren’t they fighting the bad guys too? These were questions I asked myself, and this experience led me to look at the Soviet Union with a more open mind down the road.
Enemy at the Gates, directed by Jean-Jacques Annuad, follows the story of Vasily Zaytsev (Jude Law), a Soviet sniper famous for his participation in the Battle of Stalingrad and his duel with Major König (Ed Harris), the head of a German sniper school, who has been dispatched to Stalingrad to hunt Zaytsev down. Plot points include his romantic involvement with a fellow sniper named Tania Chernova and his relationship with Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) whose responsibility is to report Zaytsev’s exploits.
The Purpose of this Review
There are, no doubt, many things wrong with this film, from historical inaccuracies involving uniforms, tanks, etc., to outright chauvinism in the depiction of the Red Army and its soldiers and officers. This much is to be expected from a Hollywood film, especially if the topic involves the Soviet Union. The purpose of this review, however, is not to dwell on these mistakes, and instead focus on the utility of an American made film that, despite these faults, acknowledges the central role of the Soviet Union at the battle of Stalingrad and in the broader battle against German fascism. For a more in-depth analysis of the failings of this movie, we recommend you read the special section below.
Stalingrad: A World in the Balance
The movie begins, after a brief scene involving a young Vasily Zeitsev (Alexander Schwan) learning how to shoot from his grandfather (Mikhail Matveev), by describing the situation presented by the Battle of Stalingrad.
“Autumn, 1942. Europe lies crushed beneath the Nazi jackboot. The German Third Reich is at the height of its power. Hitler’s armies are charging through the heart of the Soviet Union… towards the oilfields of Asia. One last obstacle remains. A city on the Volga… where the fate of the world is being decided. Stalingrad.”
For every attempt to portray the Red Army and Soviet command as bumbling fools and tyrants, this movie cannot deny the incredible importance of the Battle of Stalingrad. Indeed, the fate of the world was decided at Stalingrad, and it was the Red Army armed with arms and equipment produced by socialist production.
Briefly on Historical Inaccuracies
Here we will discuss the major historical inaccuracies of the film. This list is not meant to be comprehensive, merely a list of major errors.
1 ) The anti-Soviet distortions start in the beginning, when they lock the doors of the train. Army trains ran with doors open in case of an air raid.
2 ) The scene where Red Army soldiers are dragged from the train is almost laughable. One of the biggest mistakes—in the docks scene, there is absolutely no organization whatsoever. Red Army soldiers are yanked off the train by commissars—no squads, platoons, companies, NCOs, officers—just a big herd. No weapons either, and barely any equipment. Russian soldiers are shown as being horribly frightened on the boat ride across the Volga. Take a look at how Hollywood (Enemy at the Gates, based on its actors, writer/director, and production company can’t really be blamed on Hollywood) portrays American soldiers and marines in recent films. Fear is displayed realistically, largely based on the advice of actual veterans. Band of Brothers and the recent series The Pacific are wonderful at this. Enemy at the Gates was insulting to Soviet war veterans.
3 ) The 13th Guards division and the 284th Siberian crossed at night, not during the day. Vasily Zaitsev was actually a clerk in the navy, attached to the Pacific Fleet. He transferred to the army upon reading about the action in Stalingrad. As a result he wouldn’t have been such a stranger to military life, which brings us to the next point.
4 ) The plot point about the rifle shortage is a bit ridiculous. This kind of thing happened (one man shoots, one man follows), but mostly in 1941 in certain crisis situations. If I recall correctly, the book Enemy at the Gates it mentions a shortage of rifles in the 13th Guards Rifle (in other words, not Zaitsev’s unit), but usually a shortage of rifles just meant that those without were issued machine pistols, which were extremely abundant and very useful in Stalingrad. There is nothing in the literature to suggest that the depicted weapon distribution happened. This is clearly meant to make socialism and the Soviet Union look inefficient.
5 ) Of course, they show the typical “human wave attack.” Considering the nature of combat in Stalingrad, it is rather bizarre to see a moment of silence once Zaitsev and the men of his herd(since there are apparently no units in the Red Army) get up from the docks. The 284th went right into combat from the central landing stage to Mamaev Kurgan. The 284th might have had to take some of the heights overlooking the Central Landing stage but unlike in the case of the 13th Guards Rifle, they were not under fire from the buildings overlooking the landing stage (the 13th Guards had cleared these buildings upon arrival and placed their HQ in one of them, which is still preserved today). By the time the 284th arrived, they would have had some idea of how to fight in the city—they would not be lining up and charging en masse with half the men unarmed.
6 ) Why is Khrushchev given such a big role when in fact he had little to do with the battle? We don’t see Chuikov, Yeremenko, Rodimtsev, or anybody who was actually commanding in the city.
7 ) Tanya Chernova was not Jewish, and was also a blonde. She was injured by a mine set off by another female sniper (from her account it was probably a ‘Bouncing Betty’). The love affair has been claimed by Zaitsev in his memoirs and to the best of my knowledge was confirmed by Tanya herself, though they were never reunited after the battle.
8 ) The Major Konig incident may in fact be propaganda. This is primarily based on the fact that the name and branch of service of the mysterious sniper has two variants. It is possible that this was an urban legend as it isn’t difficult to believe that the Germans may have deployed their most elite snipers in Stalingrad. The 6th army itself was considered to be an “elite” unit based on its war record.
9 ) Stalin’s order 227 (Ни шагу назад!/Not a Step Backward) is misinterpreted. People were not shot for seeking cover or falling back, but for abandoning their post without orders, particularly in the case of officers ordering unauthorized retreats. It was designed to prevent panic, and as military historian John Keegan wrote in at least two of his books; a man in combat is most vulnerable when he turns his back and tries to flee. This is also true of entire units sometimes. Even a basic reading of the history of Stalingrad shows that there were numerous retreats, which did not have specific orders, wherein those who escaped were not shot, nor arrested. Some examples are Dragan’s retreat from the train station all the way back to the Volga. This is at least one kilometer.
10 ) Zaitsev was a hero no doubt, but we don’t see people like Mikhail Panikhakho, who after having one Molotov cocktail shot and its contents ignited all over him, continued to rush at a German tank, disabling it with the Molotov in his other hand—killing himself in the process. There is nothing about the 39th Guards Rifle Division, ex-paratroopers who perished almost to a man in the factory district. We don’t see the sailors who, numbering no more than 100, held off several German divisions for days from the Grain Elevator. We also don’t hear a word about “Pavlov’s House,” which held out for three months with a strength no larger than a company.
11 ) Finally, the movie really missed the essence of Stalingrad. The battle of Stalingrad wasn’t so much about snipers as it was about the machine pistol, the hand grenade, the bayonet, the knife, the entrenching tool, bricks and rubble, and even bare hands and combat boots. It was not about picking people off from a distance but rather endless hand-to-hand combat, often lasting for hours at a time, with opponents fighting over a single room, and all this time spent so close that you could hear the enemy breathe whenever grenades weren’t flying back and forth.
Verdict: Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth
Anyone who watches this film and has more than a summary knowledge of the Eastern Front is bound to be offended at some level, and the final “moral” concerning the viability of socialism delivered by Commissar Danilov at the end is downright insulting to one’s intelligence. Have no delusions: this is a propaganda film, designed to apply a bourgeois perspective to the Second World War.
Yet all of this considered, any film that breaks away from the bourgeois argument that “socialism and fascism are the same thing” and portrays the Soviet Union as anything less than pure totalitarian evil is deserving of a little credit, especially now as anti-communist and crypto-fascist rhetoric is on the rise. The legacy of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany and all the sacrifices made towards that end are something that needs to be kept alive in our memories, and despite its many inaccuracies and anti-communist themes, Enemy at the Gates serves a purpose in breaking through the typical rhetoric about Soviet Socialism.