Hey folks, here's an EXCELLENT look at the facts behind the story that the film, ENEMY AT THE GATES will be based upon. This is the film that Jude Law, Ed Harris, Rachel Weisz and Joseph Fiennes will be starring in for director, Jean-Jacques Annaud. Enjoy this rundown of the history of the event upon which this film is based...
ENEMY AT THE GATES: The True Story
Saw your item on the new Annaud film. As an amateur history buff, I recognized this tale when the film project was mentioned in Variety or Hollywood Reporter or wherever I saw it first. Some of your talkbackers were aware that it's based on an actual incident, so I thought you might enjoy a recounting of the historical facts. It'll be interesting, to be sure, to see where Annaud and his fine cast take this baby.
Stalingrad, 14 Sept 1942. German forces -- the Fourth Panzer and the Sixth -- are moving into the city's ruined downtown. But the Russians have snipers all through the city, positioned in ones and twos, and their marksmanship takes a heavy toll on the Wehrmacht as it slogs through the rubble. The delay gives the Russian Army on the other side of the city time to mobilize and bring forward additional forces to resist the Germans.
One of the Russian snipers was well-known to the Germans. Vassili Zaitsev was an infamous marksman, credited during one ten-day period with forty-two killshots. As his reputation spread, German command began demonizing him, making his capture and/or kill a primary morale-building objective. Naturally, then, when they learned he was among the Stalingrad sniper crew, they knew they had to do something.
So they shipped to Stalingrad one of their own infamous hunters, a certain Major Konings. His job was simple: Enter Stalingrad, locate Zaitsev, and eliminate him.
This was not kept secret for long. Konings was researching Zaitsev's style and tactics, while Zaitsev knew only that Konings had previously headed a German sniper training program. And meanwhile, the news spread quickly through both armies: A virtually gladitorial match would be taking place, as the Russian hero would be facing the German in a one-on-one duel to the death.
So, incredibly, both armies, hundreds and hundreds of soldiers, settled down to wait on opposite sides of Stalingrad, giving the two lone combatants free run of the destroyed city.
Konings announced the beginning of the duel, issuing the challenge by killing two Russian snipers. Zaitsev -- who was, in fact, not alone, but accompanied by his spotter, Nikolai Kulikov -- began working the terrain, looking for Konings. Visualize the scene: destroyed buildings, piles of rubble, twisted metal... an infinite number of places to hide, and wait.
To an outside observer, it would have seemed that nothing at all happened for the first whole day. But in fact, both Zaitsev and Konings were slowly, carefully moving and watching. Each knew their opponent was an expert, and one mistake would finish the contest. Even when Zaitsev saw a flash of a German helmet, towards sunset, he held his fire; he couldn't be certain it wasn't a ruse.
Before dawn broke, Zaitsev and Kulikov dug into a bombed-out building, while Konings hid himself amid scraps of twisted steel. And all the second day, they watched and waited.
The third day, as tension was continuing to escalate, a political officer entered the city with Zaitsev and Kulikov to observe the duel. His name was Danilov, and he was, of course, a useless Communist ladder-climber. After only a couple of hours, Danilov couldn't stand it any more, and he jumped up out of the hiding place, waving and pointing furiously -- there he is, look, I'm pointing, get him, get him.
Zaitsev didn't move a muscle at Danilov's gesturing. Nor did he move when Konings drilled Danilov through the shoulder, apparently hoping it would flush Zaitsev.
And both remained completely still, even when a team of Russian medics picked through the debris, put Danilov on a stretcher, and took him away.
Hours passed. Zaitsev, scrutinizing the environment, had decided the German had to be in one of a couple of places. Because Danilov's outburst had narrowed down his own hiding place, Zaitsev used a simple trick -- a glove on a branch -- to draw Konig's fire. And at the movement, Konig drilled the glove.
His suspicions confirmed, Zaitsev and Kulikov backed out and moved to a different hide. By the time they got there, the sun was going down, behind Konings, therefore shining into Zaitsev's eyes. Zaitsev chose to wait for sundown, then all the way through the night, so the sun would be at his own back, blinding Konings.
Morning four. Kulikov had taken up a position away from Zaitsev, off to the right. And they set in motion their plan.
First, Kulikov fired a single shot into the rubble, aiming at nothing in particular. Zaitsev knew Konings would be focusing on the shot's origin, thinking perhaps Zaitsev had fired at a false target.
They let time pass, until the sun had climbed higher, obscuring Konig's vision. Then Kulikov slowly raised his helmet, again using a stick, as if peering out to check the results of his shot.
And Konig drilled it. Kulikov screamed and thrashed around as if wounded, keeping Konings's attention on the spot.
And that's all Zaitsev needed. When Konings fired, Zaitsev had spotted the glint of the German's scope. He settled his finger on the trigger, exhaled gently, and blew Konings's face through the back of his head. It was his only shot in four days.
And then the battle of Stalingrad continued. Cut to Joseph Vilsmaier's film to see how it all comes out...
(The details of this account can be found in the semi-classic sniper book, "One Shot, One Kill," and has no citations as to source and/or history to validate its version.)
Obviously, there's a hell of a movie in here. As I understand the Var/HR article, there may be some fictionalizing going on; I seem to remember reading about a love triangle or something, an artificial attempt to give some personal history to the two combatants. I personally don't know if that's necessary, since the actual story is so compelling. The casting sounds great -- Jude Law and Joseph Fiennes as the Russians, and Ed Harris as the German. The shooting of Danilov, the political officer, should be a hilarious showstopper. It'll also be interesting to see if Annaud references, in any way, the great 1993 Vilsmaier film.
One major question I have about how this will be filmed: Although the story is gripping to read and hear, how will it be to see? If it accurately portrays what being a sniper is like, there are going to be long stretches where Law/Fiennes and Harris lie on their bellies, staring at dust and rocks, barely breathing. I imagine that'll be suspenseful for a while, but will that last for a whole movie? Maybe that's what the fictionalized elements are about, giving us some flashbacks or something to cut away to if the audience gets bored. Remember that movie with Tom Berenger, "Sniper," in '92 or '93? It started out trying to capture the essence of sniper-dom, but it felt the need to keep audience interest with fancy bullet photography (a la "Prince of Thieves"), plus a generic odd-couple "they hate each other but must learn to trust" buddy-film structure. Not a bad movie, but certainly not a great one either.
Let's hope "Enemy at the Gates" trusts the value of its source material, and doesn't fall into any of those traps.