Violating the dead

By Gary Kamiya


Salon Staff
March 31, 2001 1:21AM (UTC)

Read the story.

Gary Kamiya's critique of "Enemy at the Gates" misses the real problem. It is a hollow claim to say the film fails to show proper respect for the dead. The dead get the respect they deserve. What the film fails to do is respect the political importance of the Soviet stand at Stalingrad.

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The Red Army's victory there was the turning point of the war and started the rollback of Hitler's forces that culminated in Marshal Zhukov's drive into Berlin in April 1945.

While 6 million Soviets were dying on the Volga shore, the Allied forces of Britain and the U.S. were waging peripheral campaigns in Africa and Italy, battles fought on a scale that would hardly register as a skirmish on the Eastern front. In fact, from the British retreat at Dunkirk in 1940 to the D-day landings in 1944, there was no Western front in Europe. The Allies were fighting mostly Italian and native forces on their fronts, doing absolutely nothing to aid the Soviet army in the East. Hitler poured the cream of his German army into Russia and was turned back by the steadfastness of the Red Army.

"Enemy at the Gates" fails to make a moral distinction between the German army and the Red Army. The German sniper (portrayed by Ed Harris) is given a quiet dignity while the Red Army staff is shown only as murderous and petty tyrants. Especially inappropriate is the depiction of the Jewish scribe (Joe Fiennes) as a jealous man who uses his education to belittle others, which is stereotypical and offensive. The Russian officers who kill their retreating men in the opening battle scene may be a historic fact, but before anyone congratulates themselves on the humane practices of the American Army, they should read "The Naked and the Dead" or any number of credible sources on the class and race distinctions and tyrannies the U.S. Army is guilty of committing.

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"Enemy at the Gates" has rewritten history to downplay the influence of the Soviets in World War II. But it is only the most recent American attempt to sublimate the importance of the USSR in the 20th century. And now, since that nation no longer exists, there is no one left to refute this. No one would defend Stalin, but it must be remembered that without his stubbornness at Stalingrad, the outcome of World War II might have turned out very different.

-- Jonah Hoyle

My father was at Stalingrad, as a German soldier. He only survived because he was injured and was flown out before the flights stopped. He spent the rest of his life with pieces of shrapnel in his head.

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My father, although German, lived in the Ukraine during Stalin's forced collectivization that saw human beings resort to cannibalism to survive. The irony here is that in order to rid the world of this evil, he was willing to give his life for Adolf Hitler and, as an officer, led other men to [their death]. He was later ashamed of this for the rest of his life.

To me, that is what war is all about: millions and millions of people having lives hijacked by crazy men, to starve and watch their children die in front of their eyes. Something that affects you and your family for generations to come.

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That is what someone should put up on the screen, not heroic antics. They might only encourage someone to do it all over again.

-- Michele M

I studied World War II as a boy and as a student of international relations at university. I also recently saw and greatly enjoyed "Enemy at the Gates." It is probably no surprise, then, that my opinion of Kamiya's piece on Stalingrad is not generally a positive one.

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There are certainly a number of very important facts that are not captured in the film. There are other aspects of the film that might be criticized as being formulaic or contrived, such as Sacha's character or the love triangle. However, I would like not to argue from a historical or critical perspective, as I am neither a historian nor a film critic.

Rather, I must disagree with Kamiya's critique based on an evaluation of the film, and especially its effect on the millions of people who have seen and will see it. Putting aside what it could have been had Kamiya been invited to make the film, one could ask if this film did more harm than good. Did it mislead? Or did it inform? I say that it informed.

There were quite a lot of teenagers and 20-somethings in the audience when I saw the film in Colorado. I left wondering how many of them had even heard of Stalingrad before and, of those, how many paid any attention to what could have easily been nothing more than a footnote in their homogenized history books.

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Part of my appreciation of the film is my belief that Jean-Jacques Annaud brought the battle of Stalingrad to many, many people who otherwise either would have had no concept of that place and time or would have had only a dry, one-dimensional lesson somewhere in the back of their minds. In delivering this imperfect account of hell on earth, Annaud certainly made -- had to make, perhaps -- compromises. He certainly does not deserve to be condemned for this, or to be accused of violating history.

For myself, having read on the subject, I found it very valuable to "experience" the horrors of war that are so well conveyed in film. Those images do much more to bring home what happened than volumes of statistics on rounds fired, bombs dropped, people killed.

Kamiya deserves some flak for getting on his high horse and attacking Annaud's work in this way. That work is art, the telling of a story. It is not a documentary; it does not pretend to be a history of Stalingrad. It is a movie. It will affect the consciousness of millions and millions of people. Some of those people will have studied Stalingrad, and may take issue with the film. Others will be inspired to learn more and will read Antony Beevor, Stephen Walsh and others. Many more will, thanks to Annaud, have at least a basic understanding of the savagery and destruction experienced in that place and time. Contributing to that understanding should not be attacked so arrogantly.

-- Luca

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Ah Gary, I know exactly how you feel. I agree with every word you say, but can you blame me for the wan little smile that plays on the edge of my lips? As an English/Australian woman I am used to seeing Hollywood take history and do appalling things to it. "Saving Private Ryan" managed to misplace most of the Allies at D-day. "U-571" took two dashing Royal Navy successes and gave the credit to a handful of white-toothed all-Americans. The last time I saw an Australian portrayed in an American war film, John Wayne was there too. I guess yours were the only white guys in the Pacific. Poor New Zealand can only hope to get a mention as a supplier of technical crew.

Memphis Belle removed the women from the air support crews in the U.K., and then it pretty much removed the U.K. from the war. I await with anticipation the U.S. depiction of Gallipoli, sans Anzacs, naturally. I can't agree with you more that it's appalling, but I am startled at your surprise. Hollywood makes a mockery of history on a regular basis, which is doubly tragic given that there are many American historians doing excellent work in bringing the past to light. But until that little valley can move beyond its parochialism, then Gary, I'm sorry, but you're just going to be upset. If it makes you feel any better, all my Brit relatives are still really pissed off about "The Patriot."

-- D.Y. Harrison

This is hard for me to write because I usually like Kamiya's work for Salon, but that had to have been one of the most pretentious pieces of crap you have ever put forth. Hey, genius! Guess what?! The premise of the movie (and this is a technical screenwriting term, so you keep up with me if you can) was not about the battle of Stalingrad. It was -- as even you said -- about the duel between the snipers. That's it. Now, if you don't like that, I think I would have much preferred you saying, "You know, there was lot to Stalingrad that the filmmakers didn't get a chance to show you." It's a pretty safe bet that the filmmakers themselves would be the first to admit that. But here's another point you and your inflatable ego failed to take into account: The moviemakers are not responsible for making the movie you want them to make. They are responsible to their craft, their vision. If you don't like it, don't pay for it. If you want something else, I suggest you pick up a pen and try it yourself.

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Also, since, apparently, you don't understand a thing about screenwriting or drama, let me say that you raised a lot of wonderful points in your article, a lot of wonderful stories -- so let's see you cram all of them into one movie, under three hours long, sell it to a studio and -- oh yeah -- make it dramatic. My bet is -- you can't. This is the fundamental problem in translating history into drama. It's a double-edged sword that storytellers have to live with. Either you make it true to life and suck the drama out of it, making it boring (in which case you will complain), or you overcook it, overblow it and don't "honor" it enough (in which case blowhards like you complain).

-- Malcolm Johnson

Although it is disappointing to see "Enemy at the Gates" trivialize the most shocking battle of history, there is another film from the director of "Das Boot" that depicts the brutality of Stalingrad from start to finish (titled, simply enough, "Stalingrad"). It portrays the war from the point of view of a unit of German soldiers who descend from sunny Italian shores into the snowy hell of Russia. One should not come away from this film feeling war is a benign or glorious endeavor. The film seemed to reach out and grip my heart.

Early on a group of Russian prisoners are shown being beaten by S.S. guards. It's a highly disturbing scene that somehow searched out raw nerves within me that "Schindler's List" didn't touch. Later on there is a tense lull in the fighting and a refugee mother and child scurry across the rubble between Russian and German troops. I was on the edge of my seat in horror, hoping they would not be cut to pieces.

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"Stalingrad" is not pretty and it is not artsy. It can actually make you feel sort of depressed, suggesting how it must surely have felt to be part of an army surrounded, in subzero temperatures, doomed to annihilation. The film shows both Russians and Germans as humans caught up in systems that commanded them to treat one another with utter inhumanity. In short, "Stalingrad" is an excellent visual depiction of the battle that would complement the books your article recommended.

-- Clair Guthrie

"But it will take more than a movie to kill the memory of Stalingrad."

Just give it an additional 20 years. People seem to have forgotten all about the battle of Verdun, the single bloodiest battle in all of humanity's sordid history. It lasted 302 days, was conducted in an area of a little less than 10 square kilometers and resulted in over 700,000 casualties. That Verdun had little strategic value seemed lost on the madmen conducting the slaughter.

-- Ravi Cusick


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