The cast if this WWII movie is uniformly excellent; the direction balanced, detailed, and sensitive; the photography and lighting are superb; and the set designs, stunts, special effects and general environment seem real and immediate.
Why wasn’t it more successful in the U.S.? Watching this excellent DVD I can think of one answer. Despite the presence of Ed Harris (as a German, no less!) the movie is aggressively European in orientation. There are many details that are lost without more historical background. The relationship between Ralph Fiennes’s “Commissar” and Jude Law’s sniper, for example. How many people know about the underpinning of political right-thinking that stretched throughout the Russian military all the way up through and including the Cold War? And how about Bob Hoskins’ Nikita Kruschev? Betchacookie that over half the U.S. audience didn’t know who Kruschev was or why people quaked at the sight of Stalin’s portraits. (Watching Hoskins’ performance I could easily see his pounding a table with a shoe, given a few more years!)
Maybe this is a case where large doses of historical accuracy make things seem very real to the history buff but in the process they lose the viewer who brings less history and more contemporary sensibility. That makes for good art but maybe less effective entertainment.
Not that this is a perfect movie. The love story, for example, was not a big help. Listening to the actors talk in the DVD’s documentaries you get the impression that this was going to be an opportunity to explore the role women played in the siege of Stalingrad; while it does address this issue somewhat, I would have preferred to have downplayed the love story.
But I have to say that is a minor quibble. Taken as a whole the movie revolves around the “duel” between two snipers, one a country boy, the other an aristocrat, played out against a backdrop of urban devastation, death, and destruction. In the hands of a lesser director this could have been an artificially inflated showdown on Main Street, or another buddy movie. Instead, director Jean-Jacques Annaud has created a masterful game of cat and mouse with two different people setting out to carefully and deliberately kill the other. The rest is window dressing.