- Hallucination As Ideology in Cinema
I. Schubert in Stalingrad
So much has already been written about the battle for Stalingrad, this battle is invested with so many fantasies and symbolic meanings — when the German troops reached the Western bank of Volga, the “apolitical” Franz Lehar himself, the author of “The Merry Widow,” Hitler’s favored operetta, quickly composed “Das Wolgalied,” celebrating this achievement. Let us just recall the two main “as if” scenarios: IF the Germans were to break through to the East of Volga and to the Caucasus oil fields, the Soviet Union would collapse and Germany would have won the war; IF Erich von Manheim’s deft manoeuvres were not to prevent the collapse of the entire German front after the defeat of the 6th Army in the Stalingrad Kessel, the Red Army would have rolled over into Central Europe already in 1943, defeating Germany before the Allied invasion in the Normandy, so that the whole of the continental Europe would have been Communist. So, perhaps, the time has come to cast a reflexive glance on the main types of the Stalingrad narratives.
There is, first, the standard German narrative: the tragedy of the hundreds of thousands of ordinary German soldiers who found themselves trapped in a foreign land, parts of a meaningless expedition thousands of kilometers from their homes, suffering carnage and Winter chill, ruthlessly exploited by their leaders for some obscure strategic goals. Such a tragic experience is, of course, the prisoner of false immediacy; it can only emerge if one does NOT ask some elementary questions: what the hell were they doing there, in a foreign country? And what about the suffering they themselves inflicted on the Russian population while they were still winning?
Then there is, of course, the official Soviet narrative: the “sacred” battle for the defense of the fatherland, in which common soldiers showed breathtaking courage. Here, also, (at least) two details disturb this picture. The Soviet reports to the military headquarters continuously refer to the mysterious “lack of coordination between artillery and infantry” — an euphemism for the fact that the Soviet artillery bombed its own men, which signal the Soviet horrifying indifference towards the loss of one’s own soldiers’ lives. An even more interesting detail is the extraordinary popularity that the snipers enjoyed in the Soviet media: snipers were Stakhanovite workers transposed onto the battlefield; their fame reflects the Stalinist turn from egalitarianism to competition and the praise of individual achievements.
Finally, the predominant Anglo-Saxon approach (exemplified by the bestsellers of William Craig and Anthony Beever) combines the objective military account with the realistic depiction of the horror of the soldiers’ daily lives: while each side is “fairly” attributed its quota of military successes and failures (with a strange symmetry: on both sides, the sagacious generals were fighting not only the enemy, but also the incompetence of their supreme commander, Hitler or Stalin), the basic mode is that of the awe at the unspeakable suffering and the superhuman endurance of the soldiers on both sides.
So how does Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Duel — Enemy at the Gates stand with regard to these three narratives? It belongs to neither of them: while appropriating the Soviet sniper myth (its hero is Wassily Zaitsev, the most famous Stalingrad sniper), this myth is co-opted into the standard Hollywood ideology. Two features of the film are crucial here: first, its ultimate reduction of the gigantic battle to the conflict of two individuals testing their will and patience — all the collective scenes are just a preparation for the duel which takes place in the abstract space of the abandoned ruins of the no-man’s-land between the two front lines. Secondly, Zaitsev is involved in a love affair with a woman-sniper, an American girl who joined the Russians to take revenge on the Germans for killing her family — we thus get the production of a couple, the second key ingredient of the Hollywood ideology. The ultimate irony of the film is not so much that it borrowed what was clearly a Soviet propaganda fabrication (there is, in the original Soviet and German reports from the front, no mention...