Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Action Climax: Enemy at the Gates

The final showdown in director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s WWII sniper duel adventure is noteworthy for emphasizing action purely from and within a dramatic context, as opposed to mere spectacle for its own sake. The film was largely panned throughout Europe and Russia for both its historical inaccuracies and alleged caricatured depictions of the two nations who fought history‘s bloodiest battle over the city of Stalingrad, circa 1942 - 1943. Stateside it received lukewarm reviews for falling on one too many 'war movie' clichés; meh-like criticisms not entirely baseless, as aspects of the film, particularly its visceral battlefield environments, indeed seem little more than the bandwagon product of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as a kind of PlayStation, 'Medal of Honor', game level hand-me-down while the larger, scripted, romantic love triangle strife postures with self-inflated Oscar swoon akin to The English Patient (kid Fiennes brother, Joseph, among the bulk of British actors acting as British actors do and speaking in their own accents, despite their Russian roles). I have no real problem with any of this, though.
Whether classical or merely contrived, such story elements are nonetheless sincere and, more to the point, they drive the narrative purposely through its numerous sniper set-pieces, accumulating to a rather stunning conclusion between the lowly Vasili Zaytsev (Jude Law) and his coldly cunning adversary, Major König (Ed Harris). In the manner of a pure action film is where Enemy at the Gates succeeds. Annaud maintains a degree of invention during the many riffle scoped, hunter-prey exchanges between Zaytsev and König, always keeping the audience alert in how the two skillfully utilize settings and prove their patience or quick-wits. Their final contest amidst an abandoned train yard could have easily been overcooked with outlandish, escalating stunts, flash-edited or wrapped in hokey slow motion, but Annaud’s execution is the stuff of dramatic poise and visual economy.  
It’s a simple setup: the two men hidden from one another at rifle range, each waiting for the other to give away his position. König, a sniper school instructor on loan from Berlin, is the tactically superior, but Zaytsev is given the upper hand by his tormented friend Danilov (Fiennes) -- the storied payoff of aforementioned love triangle -- who unexpectedly sacrifices his own skull to the crosshairs of König, and thus tricking the latter into believing he picked-off Zaytsev. In the following moment König emerges from his covered trench and cautiously approaches his target to confirm the kill. James Horner’s heavy orchestrals build forebodingly to the remaining seven, seminal shots, the first of which fixed on the German as he creeps towards the camera. And then, in mid-crescendo, the score abruptly freezes into a screeching state of paralysis in unison with König; the camera zooming in on his unblinking gaze as he immediately senses his fatal error.
The following shot is a low angle pull-back revealing Zaytsev’s new ground, now on König’s 9 o’clock, standing between two train carts. The third shot is back on König only to then track around to his left, serving as a reverse angle to Zaytsev’s POV. With the music fading away entirely, the next three shots are back 'n' fourth close-ups of the two men, and it is here that Ed Harris’ wordless performance eloquently conveys König’s realization that the game is over, as he then, in a final gesture of utmost dignity, removes his hat and faces both his enemy and his own end with stoic acceptance and respect, before cutting to Zaytsev as he pulls the trigger.
Again, note Annaud's concentrated selection of frames and precision movements of the camera. It is a sequence staged with minimal components for maximum effect that in turn achieves a near perfect hybrid of stilled action with the drama that has propelled the two characters to this point.

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