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Socialists at War

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04/06/2001Lawrence W. Reed

In August 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed a secret deal to invade and divide Poland between them.  Proving there’s no honor among thieves, Nazi tanks bulldozed their way into the Soviet Union in June 1941.  In no time at all, the rest of the world forgot about the alliance that started the war and "Uncle Joe" Stalin had become one of those Reds that Franklin Roosevelt may have had in mind when he said some of his best friends were communists. 

For Ivan Lunchbucket, the ordinary citizen of the butcher Stalin’s workers’ paradise, the Nazi-Soviet theatre of World War II was a no-win situation if there ever was one.  Scarface and Machine Gun Kelly were duking it out for the right to kick and stomp on poor hapless Ivan, if Ivan didn’t get mowed down first in the crossfire.

By the fall of 1942, the two socialist titans were locked in a deathgrip around a city on the Volga, Stalingrad—the backdrop to the new movie, "Enemy at the Gates."  Stalingrad was, in real life, a horrific battle that wrought unspeakable brutality and mindboggling loss of life.  Indeed, the rap on "Enemy" is that, in spite of scenes that rival those of "Saving Private Ryan" in sheer blood and guts, it somehow loses sight of the war to focus undue attention on a duel between two snipers—the Russian sharpshooter hero Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) and the Nazi marksman, Major Koenig (Ed Harris), sent by Hitler to kill him.  

As for me, I didn’t expect a documentary.  It never occurred to me that months of fighting in and around the city and a million or more casualties could somehow be faithfully distilled into two hours on the big screen.  And besides, the duel between Zaitsev and Koenig did indeed happen and it was a drama, though embellished in the film, that has always begged for a screenplay.  

What I did expect was that Hollywood wouldn’t resist an opportunity to once again cover up for the Soviet regime and paint it sympathetically as a valiant ally in the sacred cause of crushing the Nazis.  Surprisingly, that is distinctly not a part of the message that producer/director/co-writer Jean-Jacques Annaud conveys in this film.  Other reviewers may dwell on character development, cinematography, the love-triangle that emerges in the movie, or the authenticity of the events depicted.  That’s fine.  But what I liked most about the film was what it has to say about the Soviet Union in general and Marxism in particular.

Within the first few minutes, it’s apparent that maintaining discipline in Soviet ranks requires lots of officers shooting lots of deserters.  Nikita Kruschev deals with a general who has lost a skirmish to overwhelming Nazi force by ordering him to commit suicide.  Then the propaganda machine kicks into high gear, making Vassili Zaitsev into a superhuman supersniper to boost sagging morale.  This is clearly a regime that has problems inspiring confidence even when the nation’s very existence is threatened by a foreign invader.

Once the Nazis realize the propaganda value to the Russians of Zaitsev’s vaunted skills with a rifle, Koenig is dispatched to eliminate him.  Zaitsev is assigned a bodyguard played by Ron Perlman who, during a momentary lull in the shooting, tells his comrade of a revealing experience.  He spent 16 months in Germany before the war ("when our Joseph and their Adolf were walking hand in hand," as Perlman poignantly puts it).  

Back in the USSR later, he was thrown in prison. His teeth were punched out because when asked by interrogators why he’d been in Germany, he explained—truthfully—that Stalin had sent him there.  Perlman’s character concludes, "That’s the land of socialism and universal bliss for you."  Whoa!  Take that, Shirley MacLaine!

Perlman manages to get off a couple more memorable lines before a bullet from Major Koenig takes him out of the picture.  He sends out for soup with these instructions: "Try not to spill it all on your way back, you Marxist bastard."  After the Germans dispatch a second man to string a communications cable and to his certain death, Perlman’s character notes, "They don’t give a s--- about a telephone man.  It’s like us with the Ukrainians."  Pulitzer Prize-winner Walter (What Famine?) Duranty must have turned in his grave.

My favorite moment came near the end of the film, just before a Soviet propagandist named Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) heaves himself into the line of fire.  Disillusioned with the cause he’s been fighting for and disgusted with himself for having betrayed Zaitsev, he mutters, "We tried so hard to create a society where everyone was equal, where there was nothing to envy or appropriate.  But there is no ‘new man.’  There will always be envy.  There will always be rich and poor."

Danilov was not speaking in purely materialist terms.  Next he says, "Rich in gifts, poor in gifts.  Rich in love, poor in love."  Egalitarians in general and Karl Marx in particular took a bullet with that one.

The film’s hero, Zaitsev, never utters a word about fighting for communism or for Stalin.  He’s uneasy about the exaggerations being told about him by Danilov’s propaganda machine.  At first, he does what he has to do as much to save his own skin as for any other cause, and later he seems more motivated by love for a female comrade than he is for love of the Motherland.  In this film, there’s no numbskull romanticization of Marxism that we saw twenty years ago in Warren Beatty’s forgettable "Reds."

Perhaps I’m so unaccustomed to anything this politically incorrect from Hollywood that what may have been inadvertent to Annaud hit me as refreshingly blatant.  Think about it: a major motion-picture that dares to lump nazis and communists into one reprehensible leftist dung-heap.  

I may have to pinch myself and go see this movie a third time to be sure I didn’t just dream it up.


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