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Thursday, 9 November, 2000, 06:18 GMT
Hollywood recycles Soviet tale
History comes full circle with a new Hollywood film based on an old Soviet propaganda tale
The most expensive film ever made in Europe - set during the battle of Stalingrad - is taking shape in the editing suite. BBC News Online's Chris Summers reports on how Hollywood is recycling an old Soviet legend.

Enemy At The Gates was due to open at US cinemas in December, in time to qualify for this year's Oscar nominations.

But the $85m film, starring Jude Law and Ed Harris, has been delayed in post-production and will not come out until the spring.

'Noble sniper' Zaitsev
Zaitsev, a shepherd from the Urals, honed his marksmanship skills as a teenager by shooting deer.
He is credited with between 144 and 232 kills at Stalingrad.
Zaitsev's career was ended when he was blinded by a landmine.
The telescopic sights of his rifle are on display at the armed forces museum in Moscow.
It has been a massive undertaking. The centre of Stalingrad was recreated at a former Soviet army base at Krampnitz, near Berlin. It was the biggest film set ever built in Europe.

Scores of unemployed Germans and ethnic Russians were used to portray Wehrmacht and Red Army soldiers respectively.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud wanted the film to be as faithful to historical fact as possible but while exercising a certain amount of artistic licence.

'Stalingrad diet'

So it is that Jude Law's character is based on a real life character - and Soviet war hero - Vassily Zaitsev, an expert sniper who picked off nearly 150 Germans during the battle.

Law went on a "Stalingrad diet" - losing two stone (12kg) - to get the emaciated look of a fighter in a besieged city.

Ed Harris
Ed Harris plays Zaitsev's SS adversary Koenig
But the film's dramatic tension stems from a snipers' duel, conducted over several days, between Zaitsev and his adversary, Koenig, the head of an SS sniper school.

It is a great story, and one mentioned by Stalingrad commander General Vassily Chuikov in his memoirs.

Yet there is no evidence Koenig existed or took part in a battle of wits with Zaitsev.

Military historian Antony Beevor told BBC News Online: "It may have taken place over one afternoon but not over days and weeks as in the film."

'No record of it'

Mr Beevor, whose acclaimed tome Stalingrad is rapidly becoming the definitive text on the battle, said while Zaitsev was a real figure there was no evidence to support the existence of Koenig.

He said: "I've been through the Soviet Ministry of Defence's archive in Podolsk and there is no record of such a duel.

Rachel Weisz
Rachel Weisz plays Zaitsev's lover
"If it had taken place the Soviet propaganda machine would have leapt on it."

Ironically Hollywood has now done what Stalin, and the genius Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, failed to do - made it Zaitsev's tale into a major motion picture.

Further confusion is caused by the role of Tania Chernova - played by Rachel Weisz - who is portrayed as Zaitsev's lover.

The film's screenplay was based on an anecdote in an eponymous book by William Craig, in which he interviewed Chernova at length.

But historian Antony Beevor, whose acclaimed tome Stalingrad is rapidly becoming accredited as the definitive textbook on the battle, described her as a "fantasist".

Mystery lover

Chernova claimed she was a sniper in the battle.

But Beevor told BBC News Online: "The woman was a fantasist. There were no women snipers in Stalingrad.

"Women sniper units were created later in 1943 but they did not operate in Stalingrad."

Joseph Fiennes
Joseph Fiennes plays Red Army political officer Danilov
Mr Beevor said Annaud had rewritten Weisz's character so that she was an ordinary Red Army soldier, rather than a sniper.

He said of the film's main plot: "It is fiction, based on a grain of truth."

But despite his reservations, Mr Beevor said he had high hopes for the film, which also stars Joseph Fiennes and has Bob Hoskins in a cameo role as Nikita Khrushchev, who made his name as a political adviser to General Yeremenko during the battle of Stalingrad.

Mr Beevor visited the film set recently and told BBC News Online: "I was impressed by the attention to detail, which was extremely good, much better than Wolfgang Petersen's earlier film."

He said: "As for the fictionalisation of certain characters, that really doesn't matter if it makes a good film, as long as it is not portrayed as the truth."

Enemy At The Gates is due out in March and will almost be in the running for next year's Oscars.

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See also:

15 Nov 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
A return to Chechnya
01 Feb 98 | Background
The Battle of Stalingrad - 55 years on
11 Feb 00 | Europe
Stalingrad meets Hollywood
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