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Wednesday, April 18, 2001
Europe goes Hollywood
You could probably count on one hand the number of European directors with the budgets and grand vision to compete directly with Hollywood films. Somewhere between Luc Besson and Bernardo Bertolucci you'd land on Jean-Jacques Annaud, who's had his share of hits, reviving Sean Connery's career with "The Name of the Rose" and landing Brad Pitt for "Seven Years in Tibet."
Annaud's latest, "Enemy at the Gates" -- starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz and Ed Harris -- is a tense duel of snipers set in the caldron of Stalingrad during the climactic battle, when a desperate Soviet defense finally blunted the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1942.
Based loosely on the exploits of actual Soviet war hero Vassili Zaitsev (Law), "Enemy at the Gates" shows how this young man was thrown into combat and within nine days became a hero to the entire Soviet Union. As his exploits boost the defenders' morale, Hitler orders a crack sniper -- aristocratic Maj. Konig (Harris) -- to track down Vassili and terminate him. This leads to an exquisitely tense cat-and-mouse duel amid the ruins of the city.
Any film covering a Soviet hero is obviously not Hollywood product, but "Enemy" is very much a Euro version of "Saving Private Ryan." The film's opening sequence, in which Soviet troops attempt a suicidal river-crossing to reinforce the city, is certainly comparable to Steven Spielberg's epic in its rush of sustained intensity; the terror and random chaos of urban warfare has rarely been portrayed with such stomach-churning impact.
In Tokyo to promote his film, Annaud spoke of what drew him to the story: "It brought together the tension of a duel and the emotion of a romance. What was also fascinating was that this small event was magnified and had repercussions on the largest battle, which itself is a duel between the two dictators."
He was also drawn to the irony in history's choice of a hero: "He was one of the few young men who could use a rifle, for the reason that the use of rifles was forbidden in Russia, and only the poachers -- who would have been put in prison if they were found with a rifle -- became those famous snipers."
Annaud focuses his film on how an ordinary man's actions can be built up into a myth. His choice of Fiennes as the intellectual party operative who uses propaganda to turn Vassili into a "hero of the people" is spot on, but some may wonder whether quintessentially posh Law is the right actor to play a coarse Russian peasant. Annaud explained his choice by saying: "[Whoever] was going to play Vassili had to be very handsome, for the very reason that the real man became a hero precisely because the propaganda system saw that he was very charismatic. As a rule: Beauty sells even war, and this is why he became such a hero."
Annaud does drag up that hoary cliche of all war movies, the "love interest," with Vassili falling in love with a female sniper named Tania (Weisz). But at least in this case, it has some basis in reality.
"There were 850,000 women fighting among the men," pointed out Annaud. "The contribution of women on the Soviet front was absolutely massive. And most of the women who survived came back married of course. It's well-known that a lot was happening in the shadows of the shelters."
Given that Hollywood is so enamored with strong "women warrior" roles these days, you'd think that a real-life story like this might have made it to the screen before pap like "G.I. Jane." But without an Ameri-centric viewpoint, films like this don't get made in Hollywood. Amid the literally hundreds of World War II movies that have been made, one would be hard-pressed to name many that looked at the Eastern front (Sam Peckinpah's "Cross of Iron" being the exception). This is the danger of letting Hollywood monopolize the global movie market.
Annaud is certainly aware of this. "As a European director, my sensibility is different. And I like to bring to audiences around the world other ideas than the typical American ideas. Different perspectives, this is my motto."
When asked how he felt Japanese audiences would respond to a Russian hero, given the fact that Japan fought the Soviets in that war and still has unresolved issues on the table, Annaud could only shrug and say: "I never know how audiences will respond. The only way for me is to go with my instincts and to go with my heart and to forget who I'm making the movie for, as long as I know it's for me."