Enemy at the Gates is a simple tale of the experiences of Vasilii Grigor'evich Zaitsev, a Red Army soldier who rose to eternal fame as a sniper during the epic Battle for Stalingrad. A replacement junior lieutenant assigned to the 1047th Rifle Regiment of the 62d Army's 284th Rifle Division, the 27-year old Zaitsev was selected to serve as a sniper because of his proven prowess as a combat a marksman. Beginning with his passage under fire across the Volga River, the film describes in intensely personal fashion the harrowing but heroic feats Zaitsev performed during two months of intense and brutal fighting at close quarters in the crumbled streets and shattered factories and buildings in the ruined city.
The film's central motif is the grippingly dramatic duel between Zaitsev, the hero sniper who exacted brutal retribution on German officers with his sharpshooter's rifle, and Major Koenig, an expert German marksman sent by Hitler to liquidate Zaitsev and restore the tarnished myth of German superiority. A young soldier caught up in the immensity of a war that no one fully understood, Zaitsev emerges as an intensely human being who survives the blazing cauldron of fire at Stalingrad and prevails. If Zaitsev, the man, is remarkably credible, so also is the cast of characters that surrounds him. Commissars, generals, soldiers (men and women), and civilian alike emerge as genuine and utterly believable figures marred by the warts and frailties inherent in us all.
A veritable cascade of vivid and raw images overpower the viewer, providing him with glimpses of an altogether unimaginable war. The harrowing crossing of the Volga; the cruelty of punitive NKVD blocking detachments; the raw brutality of commissars driven by ideology and their instinct to survive; the crude Russian papirosi [cigarettes]; the ubiquitous ideological slogans plastered to every building surface; the terrible carnage of the frightening battle in the ruins of the tractor factory; the crude, miserable, and overflowing hospitals, and a host of other fleeting images combine to form an unforgettable mosaic. Although elements of the mosaic are indeed apocryphal and the nature of the film required compression of many of the war's real brutalities into the film's introductory section, there is no doubt but that these stark incidents occurred on a recurring basis throughout the war.
This is the first film to capture this dramatic and emotionally charged mosaic of what Russians justifiably term their "Great Patriotic War," a war that has shaped and continues to shape Russian civilization. In essence, the tone and gruesome essence of Zaitsev's personal struggle serves as a microcosm of the Battle for Stalingrad and the war as a whole. Utterly devoid of pretension and political correctness, Enemy at the Gates is the first film of its kind on the Soviet-German War, but hopefully not the last. It performs the immensely valuable service of introducing Western viewers to the most critical theater in World War II, a theater of war long ignored by many, but vitally important to the ultimate outcome of war and historical developments since war's end. Enemy at the Gates deserves to become an instant classic in the fine tradition of Gone With the Wind, War and Peace, The Longest Day, and Saving Private Ryan.
Note: Zaitsev served at Stalingrad from 10 October through 17 December 1942 and, for his performance in killing 225 German soldiers, he was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union on 22 February 1943.