A great suspenseful telling of a duel between smart, knowledgeable
men. There was a lot of tension, and even a credible love story!
The tension started right away. And I believe this depiction of the
way the Soviets treated their soldiers during the second world war. If
they didn't run suicidally into the enemy fire, if they retreated, they would
face the bullets of their generals, so that nobody returned home a
failure. They just didn't return at all. The Soviets had not
learned that this was a different kind of war than the last one. A war
that required strategy and not the waste of thousands of men running to their
In steps Vassili, a young man who shot wolves in his small village in the
wilderness. When a political officer comes across him hiding in a
fountain full of bodies, across the street from a German outpost, and they both hide for
their lives, both of their lives are changed. For once he has a rifle in
his hand, Vassili kills five German officers with five bullets.
Danilov immediately sees the potential in this man, and sends him into the
sniper division. As his boss and discoverer, Danilov gains notoriety,
too. He publishes a bulletin newspaper, which glorifies Vassili with
every issue. It is not long before he becomes a hero, a name known to
every Soviet resident. And when he turns up at their door, he is
immediately welcomed and hidden. And he gets looks from the girls, too.
In particular, he gets the look from a young militia-woman named
Tania. Because she speaks German, Tania's potential is not lost upon
Danilov, who falls immediately in love with her, too. They are both
Jewish, and have an immediate bond against the Nazis already. Danilov
brings her to the command center, where she helps translate intercepted
communications. But it is not long before she seeks revenge for her
Jewish parents, taken by the Nazis, and she sees the glory of what Vassili has
become. Plus, she has fallen for her idol.
This is all prelude for the duel, and it is amazingly well done. I am
not so sure that Khrushchev needed to be told about any of the battle plans his
political officers mentioned to him, but it worked well to set the
stage. He was too wide-eyed when Danilov mentioned that the Soviet Union
needed heroes, as if it was the first time the thought ever crossed his
mind. This is not the younger version of the man who would take on
Kennedy as leader of the USSR, or command some of the greatest space successes
in the world. But it did give us a glimpse as to what the other officers
thought, how they believed Stalin's decrees of setting examples by punishing
the defeated, destroying the greatest minds in the country.
Vassili becomes a major pain to the Germans, who lose over a hundred of
their top men to his sniper bullets. So they send for help, and it
arrives in the form of Major Konig, a famous sniper, who is more than they had
For most of the rest of the movie, Vassili and the older Konig
play tag, first one luring the other into a trap, then reversing their
roles. Vassili falls for the trap the first time, but when he figures
out who is chasing him, he gets smarter, very quickly. But he also gets
depressed, as he cannot catch this man, and he knows the man is better than
him -at least has many years more experience, and he teaches sniping in
It is a terrific cat-and-mouse game that lasts just long enough for
both parties to get fed up with one another. Konig uses a young boy who
shines his shoes to learn information about Vassili, but the boy in turn gives
Danilov the information. The boy pays the ultimate price for this
dangerous game, though, as he is hanged, and used to try and lure Vassili out
into the open. It doesn't work, because Konig makes a fatal
The small subplot revolves around the love triangle of
Tania, Vassili and Danilov. Vassili grows close to Tania, and they have
good talks, but he doesn't seem to have any romantic feelings towards
her. Until she comes to him in his bed (which is nothing more than a
square meter on the floor next to more men), and they make love. The
looks in their faces as they try not to make any sounds, to keep some privacy
where there was none, betray all the grief they haven't shared with anybody
else, combined with the pleasure of becoming one. The act is both a
release and a show of love.
When Danilov finds out, he begins
writing propaganda that Vassili is becoming negligent, casting doubts instead
of optimism, and so forth. This scene is sorely misplaced, because
nothing comes of it, and Vassili never finds out his friend did this.
The other scene that seems misplaced is where Konig is ordered to leave the
country. He is without his dog tags, so that if he dies en route back
home, it will not be a moral victory for the Soviets; he will die
anonymous. But Konig stays on for another day (perhaps two), and
continues the hunt anyway, as if he didn't have any orders. Even a man
of his rank and heroic stature has to answer to his boss. His superiors
believe Vassili is dead, but Konig believes otherwise. Why? I'm
sure it was supposed to be instinct, but something was missing, there.
the boy, Sacha, dies, the city is evacuated. Tania is critically injured
while trying to get the boy's mother to safety, and Danilov is
devastated. He goes to Vassili, begs forgiveness, and sticks his head
out of the blind, effectively committing suicide. For Konig shoots him
within a split second. Vassili, having finally learned the game, stays
put, doesn't shoot any more, and simply waits. Konig emerges after what
is probably hours, thinking that maybe he finally got his rival. But
Vassili is waiting for him. The climactic scene occurs when Konig
suddenly notices Vassili standing in the open, rifle raised. In a moment
of sudden clarity, he knows that he is dead. Removing his hat, he looks
straight at his nemesis, and is shot.
We are treated to a happy
ending when Vassili finally tracks Tania down in a hospital after the Germans
surrender. Sacha's mother used her pass to get the girl to safety,
knowing that she could be healed. Tania is still weak, but her smile
when she sees Vassili enter the room radiates such immense warmth.
did not recognize Tania as Eve from The
Mummy and its sequel.
She looked a lot younger, and much more beautiful. I wonder why the
producers didn't try to get people who had Russian and German accents for this
movie. All the Soviets had British accents, and the Germans had barely
any accent at all, but spoke in gruff tones.
The tone of the
movie was very dark, but was interspersed with a lot of hope, the way only
Russians can give it. Even in their darkest hour, they still have to
party, because they might not live to party again. The scenes were very
dark, and awesome in detail. The wreckage of Stalingrad, every building
eaten away by bombs, was completely haunting.
Finally, the music
was excellent, as well. It was noticeable in the way it cranked up the
tension. The waiting was made bearable because of the talent of the
director to give us something to contact with, whether it was the muzzle of
the rifle, or a glint on the sniper's eye (or the way Vassili slept through en
entire raid!). But it was also bearable because of the terrific music
that accompanied it. Much of it reminded me of the waiting scene in Indiana
Jones and the Temple of Doom, where two characters are waiting to be
seduced by each other, but neither will give in. The theme is very
similar here, but the seduction is of a different kind, much more deadly.
from a couple of scenes that seemed way out of place, this was a terrific
movie. It was just dark enough, and the "duel" had about as
much tension as was possible. The movie was longer than two hours, but
felt like much less, everything was paced so well. I really enjoyed it.