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Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (2001, Paramount Pictures)
Starring Jude Law, Ed Harris, Joseph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz

As a young Russian sniper picks off important Nazi generals at the battle of Stalingrad, the Germans send one of their own to dispatch him.



4 stars

September 8th, 2001 on Video


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 deaths.

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 hoped for.

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 Germany!

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 error.  

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.

After 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. 

I 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.

Aside 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.


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