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ENEMY AT THE GATES... a history lesson about the true story it's based upon by Harold Hellman

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...


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.

Sign me...

"Harold Hellman"

Readers Talkback
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  • Jan. 20, 2000, 5:49 a.m. CST

    Not even second!

    by Ashen Shugar

    Just first... This movie will kick ass if Annaud doesn't screw it with dumb metaphysical ideas: it's just the story of men, nothing more

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 6:34 a.m. CST

    Love Triangle

    by Meat Takeshi

    Why? This sounds like the basis for a superb movie, especially as its got Ed Harris in it. Why spoil the inherent drama in the story with a superfluous romantic interest.

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 7:16 a.m. CST

    oh what a lovely war

    by reni

    blimey - real life's much more exciting... that was one of the best articles I've read on the site... more History please...

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 7:44 a.m. CST


    by Dodge Manhunter

    Is this an adaption of the last project of SERGIO LEONE before he died? I remember that he didn't wrote a word for the project but he had a 100 million backing for it.---- e-mail:

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 9:35 a.m. CST

    That was a fucking great article

    by mooch

    This sounds like it could be an amazing film. Rancid Aliminium is coming out in a couple of weeks and there was a Joseph Fiennes interview in Empire where he mentions Enemy At The Gates, but unfortunately I don't have the copy with me, I'll try and find out what he says.

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 9:55 a.m. CST

    Today's articles have brought things up a bit! Well Done

    by Funny Ha Ha

    I now really want to see this movie. I was impressed with Law in Ripley, let's hope he's got the depth to play "gritty" in this one.

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 10:17 a.m. CST

    You're wrong this time, Darth Bond

    by Deltahead

    The sniper scene in "Assassins", where Banderas is just itching for Sly to leave that bank, is probably the best scene. The movie in general was pretty lousy, saved only by the presemce of the lovely Julianne Moore. Peace.

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 10:52 a.m. CST

    See Stalingrad!

    by Mean Ween

    It's a long hard ride but it's definitly worth your time if this article interests you.

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 11:12 a.m. CST


    by Jar Jar Gabor

    I hope the movie is as good as this article.

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 11:14 a.m. CST


    by Jar Jar Gabor

    I hope the movie is as good as this article.

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 11:27 a.m. CST


    by nathanmcginty

    The sniper stories are pretty interesting. I don't know if this is what the movie is going to focus on, though. The title comes from the book of the same name, which is more of a general history of the battle. The whole thing was a pretty fucked up situation. After the Russians attacked and they had the city surrounded, Hitler ordered that the 6th Army hold on and not move an inch. By the time the Germans finally surrendered, about a month (?) later, they had gotten to the point where they were eating their horses - and, according to some accounts, each other. The book's a good read if you can get your hands on it.

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 11:54 a.m. CST

    This Sounds Incredibly Cool - Pardon the Superlative

    by smilin'jackruby

    If they just take that story and film it, holy shit! I'd be the first one in line. Also, if anyone hasn't seen the Vilsmaier film the reviewer mentions, it's pretty damn incredible, too.

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 1:28 p.m. CST


    by Giancarlo

    This film is starting to sound pretty sweet to me. Jude, Ralph and Ed good, good . Rachel Weisz you are a sun in the summertime baby.

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 4:25 p.m. CST


    by Cassius the Evil

    This sounds damn cool. But then again, that's what everyone else is saying too, sooo...

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 5:44 p.m. CST

    yeah, I'm a wolrd war buff...

    by quentin69

    I've read and read and read about WWI and WWII ever since high school, and I've been obsessed with both... These two world wars are in my opinion the most intriguing events in human history (next to The Crusades)... And it's these FASCINATING stories that just get me high...It's like feeding an addiction, because you know what? THERE ARE COUNTLESS stories like this one... It is quite gripping... And it sounds like this film is going to be incredible. We need more WW2 films like this... PS: If you want to see a great film about the American occupation of Germany and the after-math of WW2 for the Germans, rent ZENTROPA... it's a fantastic film about the immediate post-war terrorist movement of the Nazi "werewolves"...

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 7:12 p.m. CST

    Making History Interesting

    by MrKearns

    Y'know... I'm a high school student, we NEVER hear stories like this in class. In fact, I've spent an absolute minimal amount of time learning about modern history throughout my years in the education system... we learn useless crap about ancient Egyptian cavemen or some sh*t. Anyway, the point is, we need more stories like this in textbooks. I could care less what Minoan artwork looked like, I wanna hear more stories like that of Zaitsev and Konings... or about the American sniper who took out an expert VietCong sniper in a duel... through the guy's scope. (Hathcock was his name?) So, stuff like this makes learning about history fun, and absolutely fascinating. (P.S.-more evidence that public school systems are f*cking useless.)

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 7:46 p.m. CST

    I can't wait for a good WW2 Sniper movie

    by Norm3

    I saw the documentary for this Sniper battle on the History Channel.

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 8:34 p.m. CST

    This was an awesome article!

    by ObiWanKenobi1138

    Move this to the top of the page and leave it there. I almost shit my pants reading this thing. Now I can't wait for the movie. Jude Law and Joseph Phienes as the Russians? Pure genious. Also Ed Harris should be good. Damn. I'm going to go get in line.

  • Jan. 20, 2000, 11:12 p.m. CST

    THE AICN of old. Damn good article

    by MAlkovich

    Well i think that was an amazing article. I to am pretty interested in how they film it, i hope it isnt too chesy with the fictional crap. By the way the sniper scene in saving private ryan wasnt bad. I really see the movie looking a lot like ryan. I am so excited that was a great damn article. Sorry i am rambling but it just sounds great. I almost wish i didnt know who won...hopefully i wont remeber by the time it comes out.

  • Jan. 21, 2000, 12:43 p.m. CST

    Love triangle

    by Darth Hideous

    Believe it or not, a love triangle might actually not be too far off the historical events, at least as told in Craig's book. Zaitsev had a protege who was a woman (not too uncommon in the Soviet army, alone among WW2 combatants)whose name I forget, Tatiana something or other I think. She was severely wounded and he thought she was dead, then later he was wounded, and it seems they never caught up with each other in the chaos of the war. I would assume the rival in the triangle would be Kulikov and not Konings. Re: the history lesson; the armies didn't back off during the duel, the battle was just stalemated at that time, with terrified enemies sitting in adjacent houses or even rooms for days on end afraid to move a muscle lest they attract lethal attention. That's one thing that makes this duel so incredible: they weren't just dueling in ruins and rubble, it was actually on a live battlefield with thousands of enemies who would gladly kill them if they made one slip-up. Sounds like the makings of a great movie.

  • Jan. 21, 2000, 1:24 p.m. CST

    Movie means moving pictures

    by Ted Terrific

    This sounds like a terrific story but will it be a terrific movie?Two sharp shooters barely moving for hours on end? If I wanted to watch a film that resembles paint drying I'd go for Eric Rohmer.