Ed Harris in Enemy at the Gates

16 Feb 2015 | 05:32

    After a quarter-century in movies, Ed Harris, always a great and terrifying actor, can finally be called a star. Oddly, the performance that cements it isn't his seething genius-bastard part in the small, acclaimed, self-directed Pollock, but a handful of scenes in the bloated international World War II epic Enemy at the Gates. In the latter, Harris plays Major Konig, a veteran German sniper flown into rubble-strewn Stalingrad to kill a gifted young Russian sniper (Jude Law) who's mowing down bushels of Der Führer's troops. Despite the gore and grit and a few memorably chaotic large-scale action sequences, the film is mostly Old Hollywood nonsense?a lurching, tone-deaf, quasi-historical kaleidoscope, packed with images of Russian peasant warriors guzzling vodka, fretting over the romantic entanglements of the beautiful young stars and debating the merits of Marxism when they're not prowling the bombed-out city, picking off Germans and getting picked off in turn.

    Yet I suspect the film's cornball elements and patches of dramatic ineptitude might have freed Harris instead of restricting him. Pollock presented him with a number of unresolvable conundrums?chief among them, how to make a self-involved, brutal, alcoholic painter watchable without falsifying him in the eyes of those who knew him. Major Konig, on the other hand, is a fictional composite?a blank slate for Harris. He fills the man with the barest handful of brief, vivid strokes. Konig barely speaks, and when he does, he uses an even, inexpressive tone designed to conceal not just his intentions, but the thought processes that led him there. He never raises his voice. He listens even when others don't know he's listening. He prefers to work alone, gliding through the ruins of Stalingrad like a blue-eyed angel of death. There's something slightly dandyish about Konig?and not just because, as Rex Reed memorably noted, he's the only character in the movie that seems to have access to a bar of soap. It's encoded in Harris' gestures: the fastidiousness with which he sips a beverage or lights a cigarette or dons a medal; his theatrical matter-of-factness as he unwraps a slab of bacon offered as a bribe to a starving little Russian shoeshine boy, Sasha (Gabriel Marshall-Thomson), who provides the Major with fatally useful information.

    Harris consistently chooses stillness over action and mystery over explanation, forcing us to be quiet and look closely whenever he's onscreen. His acting is of the same philosophical school as Miles Davis' minimalist trumpet attacks and Ernest Hemingway's stripped-down, subject-verb-object prose. The strategy is summed up in a couple of lines from Glengarry Glen Ross, another film Harris was great in: (1) Don't open your mouth unless you know what the shot is, and (2) if you're going to make something up, be sure it helps.

    Technically, however, Harris isn't the star of Enemy at the Gates. That would be Jude Law, the lean, beautiful British actor who plays Russian hero Vassily Zaitsev, a gifted sniper and uneducated peasant who mastered the rifle as a boy hunting wolves in the Ural Mountains. He arrives in Stalingrad in a gigantic opening battle sequence, which finds hordes of Russian infantrymen crossing the Volga en route to the city while being pounded by artillery shells and strafed by planes. Rather too obviously modeled on battle sequences in Saving Private Ryan?without the crisp editing and geographical clarity?the opening nevertheless sets up Vassily's anonymity (just another peasant recruited as cannon fodder) and then erases it once Vassily makes his way into the city. Hiding among Russian corpses about 50 yards from a building where German officers are headquartered, he sees another Russian, the military journalist Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), secretly drawing a bead on the enemy. The bookish, trembling Danilov lacks faith in his own sniping abilities; Vassily politely offers to do the honors, and proceeds to pick off the German officers one by one, timing each shot to coincide with the sound of artillery explosions so his enemies don't even notice their comrades getting plugged.

    It's a promising start; you might think you're in for a film that combines the scale and moral seriousness of Ryan with the action-film bravado of Braveheart and The Patriot. Alas, Enemy can't find a way to reconcile the two modes?perhaps because they can't be reconciled, or perhaps because director Jean-Jacques Annaud has a gift for detailed widescreen dioramas, but almost no sense of narrative architecture. The political-historical seeds planted in the first act don't flower. A romance between Vassily and a Russian-Jewish peasant girl named Tanya (Rachel Weisz), who wants to be a sniper, seems so arbitrary and cornball that you can almost picture some stereotypical cigar-chomping producer telling the director, "Can't we get a little boy-meets-girl into this thing?you know, for the ladies? And be sure to give her a rifle so we don't get accused of sexism." Danilov's transforming Vassily into a mythic Russian folk hero (by publishing countless stories about him in his newspaper) seems a plot device to keep the reticent Vassily in the sniping business, rather than a much-needed commentary on the mechanisms by which the media creates and exploits "heroes."

    The arrival of general and future Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins, natch) promises a dash of historical satire; the man seems as brutal, arbitrary and self-interested as the Germans he despises. But Hoskins' rich, funny performance is wasted in a series of scenes that reduce him to the glorified equivalent of one of those middle-aged black police captains who are always shouting at the heroes in cop thrillers ("Goddammit, Danilov, get in here! I wanna talk to you!"). And the script, adapted by Annaud and Alain Godard from two books, suffers from an inability to get the characters where they need to be (geographically and emotionally) to stage certain setpieces. The conclusion of Konig's relationship with little Sasha is sheer melodramatic contrivance; what's more, it insults the complicated relationship that Harris and Marshall-Thomson have so carefully constructed.

    The supposed love triangle between the peasant blossom Tanya, the likably macho Vassily and the twerpish intellectual Danilov (a borderline anti-Semitic caricature) is just as sloppy. Supposedly Danilov resents Vassily because he's won the girl Danilov coveted. But Fiennes projects only hectoring resentment in his scenes with Weisz?and his wide-eyed, backslapping physicality in scenes with Law suggests a Chuck & Buck scenario that the film would rather not consider. Another curious touch: Danilov and Tanya's conversations about the importance of defeating the Nazi menace for the sake of Russian Jews. Considering what happened to Russian Jews under Stalin, the irony of this sentiment should have been explored.

    But then, that might have complicated a lavish international coproduction that's hell-bent on keeping complications to a minimum. In the end, Enemy at the Gates is less interesting as an historical epic, or an action melodrama, than as an example of the compromises that must be made to mount European films on the same scale as American blockbusters. During the many boring spots, my mind wandered to the curious predicament of the sniper?a hired gun who's imported into trouble spots and left to his own devices; a man who's worth 50 or 60 regular soldiers. Sniping, as depicted in this film and others, could be a dark mirror of the life of a movie star.

    A movie star's financial and creative value are so great that sometimes filmmakers don't adequately support them; it's as if they're counting on one or two soldiers to win the war for audience interest singlehandedly. For large portions of the film, Law and Harris are virtually alone in Stalingrad, blasting away at each other for our entertainment pleasure. In quieter moments, they keep more or less to themselves. Vassily takes a lover in a strange city, just as movie stars are known to shack up with a local during long shoots on location; he's reluctant to get too emotionally involved because when the shoot (double meaning) is over, he might be moving on (another double meaning). Konig's base of operations is a small room with a table, chair and cot that suggests the World War II equivalent of a dressing room in a trailer; he waits and thinks about the process until he's ready to be called to the set.

    In Enemy's star glamour contest, Law only looks like the winner?and the reason for his defeat can be found not just in Law's likable but somewhat vague performance, but in an exchange between the hero and his girl. In a tender moment, Vassily tells Tanya that in the Ural forests, wolves live three years but donkeys live for nine. In a filmmaking context, stars are wolves: they're beautiful and feared, but they're only valued for one talent, and they have short (career) lifespans. Donkeys?character actors?do lots of different work and last much longer. If you think of newly minted superstar Law as a wolf?and a childhood wolf-hunting flashback during the opening credits encourages you to do exactly that?then Harris, the vastly older, more rugged and more experienced veteran, would be Law's counterpart, the donkey. Yet he's pulled off a fantastic trick here: in essence, his performance positions him as a donkey with the charisma and killer instinct of a wolf. Harris' career has a lot more than nine years left in it; the forests are his to roam.

     

    Framed

    Devotees of Iranian cinema?and their numbers are rightfully growing?should check out Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema After the Revolution, a documentary that opens this Friday. New Jersey-based documentarian Jamsheed Akramis has packed a lot of information into 115 minutes, deftly summarizing the major thematic occupations of the world's most consistently interesting cinema and interviewing most of its leading lights. Among the featured filmmakers: Abbas Kiarostami (Close-Up, Taste of Cherry), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh) and Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon). The filmmakers astutely describe the double bind they find themselves in: On one hand, Iran's restrictive culture makes it harder to express challenging ideas in movies; on the other, Iran's insularity has protected its filmmakers from the tyranny of Hollywood and its various international imitators. "The difference between Iranian cinema and the dominant cinema in the rest of the world is the difference between a local dish and a hamburger," says Makhmalbaf. "The entire world is eating hamburger."