By Rick Cartledge
When one thinks of Second World War in Europe, one often thinks of the Italian Campaign, Normandy, and the Battle of the Bulge. When one goes deeper, one begins to view the enormity of the War, particularly in the East. In the East one finds Operation Barbarosa, German troops at the outskirts of Moscow, the Kirsk salient, and most of all the Siege of Stalingrad.
As her conquests and alliances grew in 1939 and 1940, Germany needed oil. Rejecting Rommel’s plan of taking the oil fields of the Middle East, Hitler chose to conquer his ally’s oil fields in the Ukraine and southern Russia. In 1941 he launched Operation Barbarosa, the invasion of Russia. By mid 1942, the German Army Group Bua stood poised before Stalingrad, the sprawling city of 500,000 on the eastern edge of the Volga River.
With the outbreak of war in 1941, the Russians possessed only two advantages — the differing gauge of their railroad tracks and the vastness of their country. That first summer the Russians stood and fought. The Russian stands resulted in slaughter or capture by the better equipped and better manned German Armies. By the next summer, the Russians fought the Germans by day and stole away by night. The farther the Russians retreated the longer the German supply lines became. German trains could not run on Russian tracks. This disparity forced the Germans to off load every supply train at the Russian border and to reload their supplies onto a Russian gauge train. The Russian gauge train then would be forced to haul the German supplies to ever lengthening destinations. The Russians had slowed the German’s advances but had not beaten them yet. Then came Stalingrad.
The Small Story Within The Big One
For those who wish the full sweep of the story, this writer strongly recommends ‘Enemy At The Gates — The Battle for Stalingrad’ by the distinguished scholar Mr. William Craig. This fine book captures the sweep and the tragedy of the turning point in the East. Within this wonderful book one also finds the accounts of Soviet sniper Vassili Zaitsev and the German sniper instructor Major Konig (or Konings). This intriguing story became the basis for the wonderful motion picture.
Vassili Zaitsev came to earth to poor parents in the Urals. When Russia needed men to fight the Germans, Zaitsev joined with millions of others. Early on, Vassili Zaitsev distinguished himself with extremely accurate long distance shooting. He became a sniper. In the looming days of the war, his battlefield work attracted the attention of propagandist and political officer Danilov. Danilov began to publicize the record of Zaitsev and increased it during the Siege of Stalingrad.
Major Konig, an instructor at the sniper school outside Berlin, did not see the humor in Danilov’s reports. He picked up his rifle and went to Stalingrad to hunt Vassili Zaitsev. Zaitsev romances fellow sniper Tania while subjecting the Germans to one shot kills. More than two million men and women fought over the turf of Stalingrad. The fight between Konig and Zaitsev came down to the sun and one shot fired by each in the late afternoon. In its way, this fight between these two men symbolizes the Siege of Stalingrad. History today questions the existence of some aspects of this battle within a battle, even to whether Major Konig existed, but the symbolism and legend lives on. In a greater sense, the fight between these two men points out the closeness of the victory at Stalingrad.
With the German armies converging on Stalingrad, Joseph Stalin drew the line. He ordered the Russian Army to hold Stalingrad at any and all costs. A semi-literate ex-coal miner turned party official named Nikita Sergeeyvich Khrushchev took up the challenge. Many citizens fled. Many others died. At the end of the siege in February of 1943, 1515 of the 500,000 pre-war citizens remained alive. The death toll on the Axis side totaled more than 800,000. Estimates of Soviet losses exceed 1,100,000. Two Panzer Armies ceased to exist. General von Paulus and more than 100,000 of his soldiers marched into Soviet prison camps. A little over 5,000 of them would survive the war. The defense of Stalingrad had stopped the German advance. From that point on the Volga in February 1943, the Russians took the offensive.
Mr. Godard and Mr. Annaud
Screenwriters get ideas from many places. The best two places prove to be either from thin air or from books. About seven years ago Alain Godard read William Craig’s wonderful book ‘Enemy At The Gates’. Within the pages, Mr. Godard became intrigued with the stories about Vassili Zaitsev. He sensed the makings of a wonderful film. Mr. Godard took his ideas and a copy of the book to the esteemed director Jean-Jacques Annaud. At their first meeting, Mr. Annuad had the same feeling about the material.
Their research lead them eastward to Germany, Moscow, and Volgagrad (Stalingrad). In Volgagrad they found Vassili Zaitsev’s rifle proudly on permanent exhibit at the Historical Museum. In Moscow they found the telescopic sight from Konings’ rifle displayed at the Armed Forces Museum. Today in Volgagrad one can find Vassili Zaitsev’s likeness standing the tallest in the enormous bas-relief of the battle.
Mr. Annaud and Mr. Godard spoke with veterans of the battle in both Russia and Germany. They examined the Russian newspaper accounts of Vassili Zaitsev. In Germany they found no record of Major Konig (more on this later). Both men viewed the lack of Konig information not as a stumbling block but as a launching pad. They would tell a classic story as best they knew it. They would tell an intimate story against the backdrop of a battle as large as Stalingrad. Mr. Annaud stated it succinctly: ‘We have taken an historical event and tried to understand what happened in the hearts of the people who lived through it.’
After months of script work, Mr. Annaud along with Production designer Wolf Kroeger (whose fine work includes ‘The Last of the Mohicans’) and producer John D. Schofield (whose work includes ‘As Good As It Gets’ and ‘Jerry McGuire’) went on a country by country search for locations throughout eastern Europe. Mr. Schofield worked closely with executive producer Ms. Alisa Tager. In eastern Germany, they found the locations for the massive shoot. Open pit mines near the Polish border, a huge dilapidated military barracks in Krampnitz, and a crumbling factory in Rudersdorf served as stand-ins for the war torn Stalingrad.
During the four months that the production crew built the sets, Mr. Annaud worked south of Brandenburg. In the town of Pritzen he supervised 300 crew and 600 extras filming the evacuation of Stalingrad. Back at the other sets, Ms. Janty Yates (whose credits include ‘Quest For Fire’ and ‘Gladiator’) moved with her customary efficiency. She created 17,000 uniforms in green and ‘mouse gray’ (see SAR Feb 00). Ms. Yates then weathered each uniform to look as if it had withstood months of combat. Ms. Janty Yates fitted every actor and stunt man with a custom fitted combat uniform.
While the uniforms reached completion, stunt coordinator Jim Dowdall began training two armies. He brought with him his experiences as armorer on The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare. His stunt work includes driving the lead tank in the climactic scenes of Saving Private Ryan (see SAR Oct 99). He trained the 17,000 volunteers to work as opposing armies. Many had no experience with weapons but all stood eager to learn. Mr. Dowdall also trained the actors. He started with drill and continued with rifle craft. After the initial training Jim Dowdall coordinated with director of photography Robert Fraisse. Mr. Fraisse’s credits include Ronin and Keys to Tulsa. Together Jim Dowdall and Robert Fraisse laid out a very rich pallet from which Mr. Annaud could work.
Lights, Camera, Action
After the screenplay is written, the motion picture becomes the director’s medium. Academy Award winning director Jean-Jacques Annaud co-wrote the screenplay. His talented staff laid out a rich pallet. The director picked a wonderful cast. Then Mr. Annaud put paint to canvass. He did so with a feeling that reminds one of the delicate stokes of Vincent Van Gogh. In this motion picture, one will view the death struggle for Stalingrad like the impressionistic views of the fields of Arles.
Mr. Annaud cast Joseph Fiennes, Jude Law, and Rachael Weisz in the roles of Danilov, Zaitzev, and Tania. Joseph Fiennes triumphed in ‘Shakespeare in Love’. When Mr. Annaud viewed Mr. Law in some early rushes of ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ he knew that he had his Vassili Zaitsev. Jim Dowdall taught all principals to handle the rifles in excellent fashion. Though both men took to the rifle very quickly, Rachael Weisz proved to be the quickest of all. Ms. Weisz had witnessed fine gun handling opposite Brendon Frasier in ‘The Mummy’. Ms. Weisz took the wonderful role of Tania Chernova, the comely student of Zaitzev and a fine sniper in her own right. Jim Dowdall simply said of Rachael Weisz’s gun handling, ‘She was brilliant.’
Mr. Annaud had only one actor in mind for the role of Major Konings — Academy Award nominee Ed Harris. Mr. Harris has thrilled audiences for years in films like Michael Bay’s ‘The Rock’ with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery; Clint Eastwood’s “Absolute Power’; and his truly amazing performance opposite Sean Penn in the classic film ‘State of Grace’. Ed Harris did not need instruction in gun handling. He showed up on set ramrod straight holding his rifle like a Prussian sharpshooter. Many people on the set commented on Mr. Harris’s use of his eyes during the filming. One may view what the film talked about in a photograph that accompanies this article. This writer has viewed that look before, not in the eyes of actors, but in the eyes of a rare type of long distance shooter. Many actors instinctively know what they are looking at.
Bob Hoskins brought his special talent to the role of Nikita Krushchev. Viewed in films from his Academy Award nominated role in ‘Mona Lisa’ to his comedic brilliance in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, Mr. Hoskins seemed destined to play the top political commissar of Stalingrad. Ron Perlman won the coveted role of Nikolai Kulikov, the rifle wielding sniper and born killer of Stalingrad. Few can forget Ron Perlman’s performances in ‘Quest For Fire’ and ‘The Name of the Rose’. Mr. Perlman brings his consummate talent to the role of Vassili Zaitsev’s close friend. Also in the film one will view Gabriel Marshall-Thomson as Sacha and Eva Mattes as Mother Filipov. Matthias Habich well plays the role of the doomed General Frederich von Paulus.
Many of our readers know of Vassili Zaitsev and Major Konig. Konig’s school existed in East Germany, outside Berlin. The story that we know comes from the Soviet perspective. Jean-Jacques Annaud found no evidence of Major Konig in Berlin. This does not say that Konig did not exist. This merely says ‘no evidence’. Mr. Annaud based this motion picture on the best evidence that he had at his disposal.
The readers of this magazine do not sleep at the wheel. Since the writing of William Craig’s book, Germany has reunited and the Soviet Union is no more. As you read this, this story carries the label ‘Soviet propoganda’. No doubt exists that Tania and Vassili were and are genuine heros of Stalingrad and The Great Patriotic War. Perhaps one of our readers in Germany or Russia has documentation on Major Konig (or Konings). If so and if this person wishes, this magazine would like to hear from you.
Against the background of the Siege of Stalingrad we view a love story and a hunt for the assassin who hunts the lovers. Mr. Annaud used 17,000 extras and five European locations to film his scenes. To tell the story of Stalingrad, Mr. Annaud enlisted a rock solid cast and a crew of consummate professionals. Those of our readers who are ‘out and about’ may wish to purchase this motion picture on VHS or CD. Don’t miss ‘Enemy At The Gates’.
This writer offers thanks to the many people who asisted in this article, especially Ms. Carolyn Sloss of Allied Advertising in Atlanta, Georgia — press reperesentatives for ‘Enemy At The Gates’. This writer also wishes to thank Mr. Ed Harris and his agents in California. On a personal note, some years ago Mr. Harris, along with the equally gracious Mr. Dennis Hopper, made the film Parris Trout two blocks from this writer’s house. We continue to wish this most accomplished actor the best of success.
Ms. Carolyn Sloss, Allied Advertising, 1770 Century CIR — Suite 122, Atlanta, GA 30345 404-633-1739
Mr. Meredith Brosnan, Sovfoto/Eastfoto Agency, 48 W 21st ST — 11th Fl, New York, NY 10010 212-727-8170
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V5N12 (September 2002)