72: Enemy at the Gates
Get a look at a different angle of World War II as we compare the 2001 film Enemy at the Gates with history.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
- Enemy at the Gates (2001) – Synopsis
- Enemy at the Gates (2001) – IMDb
- The History Place – Enemy at the Gates: Movie Review
- Review: Enemy at the Gates | The Society for Military History
- Battle of Stalingrad – Wikipedia
- Barrier troops – Wikipedia
- Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad (Movie Tie-In): William Craig: 8601400937716: Amazon.com: Books
- Erwin König – Famous snipers in history – Pictures – CBS News
- War mentality: How a man boosted the morale in Stalingrad | Russia Beyond The Headlines
- Vasily Zaitsev: The legendary sniper of Stalingrad | Russia & India Report
- Tania Chernova – Wikipedia
- sniper Vasily Zaitsev’s rifle & belongings | Photo
- Soviet women in World War II | Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing – eBooks | Read eBooks online
Since beginning his professional career in the 1970s, French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud has had a hand in writing eight of the thirteen feature-length films he’s directed.
One of those films he did not write is one you’ve probably heard of. That would be 1997’s Seven Years in Tibet, which is based on the true story of Heinrich Harrer—as played by Brad Pitt in the film.
Even though he didn’t write that one, Jean-Jacques Annaud teamed up with the legendary composer John Williams for the film starring Brad Pitt. John’s work on that film would go on to be nominated for a Golden Globe for best score.
Just a few years later, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s very next film saw him team up with yet another legendary composer. This time it was James Horner for 2001’s Enemy at the Gates, another film based on a true story.
As of this recording, every single feature film that Jean-Jacques has directed since then is one he’s also had a hand in writing. And that includes Enemy at the Gates, a film he co-wrote with Alain Godard.
With a budget of about $68 million, Enemy at the Gates would go on to earn about $97 million at the box office. The story is one that introduces much of the world to a side of World War II that not many know about—the life of a Soviet sniper during one of the bloodiest battles. Not just during World War II, but one of the bloodiest battles in history.
The true story behind Enemy at the Gates
It’s cold. To avoid showing his breath, the young boy takes some of the snow that covers the ground and puts it in his mouth. Camouflage tactics. His rifle shakes as he fires one shot at his enemy, the wolf chasing down a white horse tied to a stump.
From the older man nearby saying his name, we find out the young boy holding the rifle in this opening sequence is Vasily.
While we can’t verify this opening sequence as truth, it sets up a few important things that are true.
First, there’s the character of Vasily. As a youngster he’s played by Alexander Schwan.
Vasily Zaytsev was a real person.
He was born on March 23rd, 1915 to a family of Russian peasants in the Ural Mountains near Chelyabinsk.
As a child, he did exactly what the movie shows—learned marksmanship by hunting deer and wolves in the Ural Mountains under the tutelage of his grandfather.
Even though the movie doesn’t have a lot of details about the opening sequence, it’s one that could have happened. In fact, there’s one story in particular of Vasily’s childhood where he was about 12 years old and managed to kill a wolf with a single shot. So maybe that’s what we saw in the beginning of the movie.
Except later on we see the results of Vasily’s single shot and it didn’t take down the wolf. So maybe not.
After this opening sequence in the film, we see the older Vasily on a train packed with soldiers. He’s played by Jude Law, and there’s a brief explanation that explains the Soviet Army is fighting back the Nazi offensive. They’ve been pushed back to Stalingrad, a city that bears the name of the leader of the Soviet Union. It’s a city they can’t let fall into enemy hands.
The movie doesn’t give a date right away, but a little later it says this is September 20th, 1942.
That would mean Vasily would’ve been 27 years old.
Oh, and as a little side note, throughout the movie the filmmakers make it seem like Jude Law’s version Vasily can barely read and write. That’s far from the truth. Before joining the military, Vasily had worked in both construction and accounting as an administrator of sorts. In truth, he’d had a pretty good education growing up.
Anyway, this scene in the movie is mad chaos. After being herded off of a packed train, Vasily is one of the Soviet soldiers who are forced to march forward…always forward. When they try to retreat, their own officers shoot them down. When they march forward, the German front line shoots them down.
This particular scene isn’t one that comes straight out of history, but it does a pretty good job of showing what things could have been like.
Although the movie gets the date slightly wrong. Vasily Zaytsev was assigned to the 1047th Rifle Regiment, which joined the fight in Stalingrad on September 17th, 1942 when it joined up with the 62nd Army.
So three days off.
Oh, and according to Vasily’s diary, he didn’t go straight from train to ferry across the Volga river like we see in the movie. Instead, a caravan of trucks delivered Vasily and the other troops. He made note of how dusty it was because his seat was near the back of the truck, so he caught all of the dust that bellowed out from under the tires.
Then, after a false alarm of an airplane overhead, the troops marched the rest of the way up to the Volga. Across the river, Vasily could see Stalingrad—a scene of fire, smoke, devastation and death. But they didn’t cross the river that first day. Unlike what we saw in the movie, Vasily and his comrades stopped at the embankment of the Volga and waited.
Tank shells would explode across the river and, yet, they’d shake the ground beneath their feet. Night set in, and still they waited.
After a few hours passed, a horse-drawn cart arrived. It was their supporting unit that they’d been waiting for. Quickly, Vasily and his fellow soldiers helped unhook the wagon from the horses who were so tired they collapsed in their tracks.
Loading the wagon onto a barge, everyone got to work filling in the countless holes in the hull of the barge. Vasily recalled that there was a chorus of hammers tapping below deck; so many holes that they had to constantly pump water out just to keep the barge afloat. Finally, enough holes had been plugged that they could stop their tapping. They had to stay as quiet as they could while crossing the river to avoid attention from the German planes overhead.
Unlike what we saw in the movie, Vasily’s barge made it across the Volga river and into Stalingrad without incident. That’s something Vasily would later ponder as to why no one was injured on their trip across the Volga. In fact, they didn’t even have a single shot fired at them. Was it because they crossed at night? Or had the German Army simply let their guard down, thinking they had the upper hand in the battle?
According to Vasily, he crossed the river on September 22nd, 1942. So that gives you an idea of how long it took between arriving in the Stalingrad region on September 17th and actually arriving in Stalingrad proper on September 22nd.
Despite these differences, many historians still say the overall spirit of the events in the movie do a pretty good job of showing the chaos.
There were many instances we know from history where the Red Army simply threw scores of soldiers into battle during the fight at Stalingrad. They did so with very little orientation, if any at all. And the result of this was massive loss of life.
Something else the movie correctly shows is how there were Soviet troops waiting to shoot any Red Army soldiers retreating.
The movie doesn’t really mention much about these troops, but we know from history that they’re what are called barrier troops. Basically, they were troops from the People’s Commisariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD. These troops were ordered to shoot any soldiers that were retreating without authorization.
As crazy as this sounds, it’s not something that originated with the Soviet Union. We know of similar type barrier troops as early as the Roman Empire when more experienced legionnaires would block soldiers from retreating by any means possible—including death.
As the saying goes, failure isn’t an option. In this case, the barrier troops were there to let soldiers know retreat isn’t an option.
Unfortunately, this also added to the body count for the war. Can you imagine what sort of chaos would happen in the U.S. Army today if the public caught wind of the use of barrier troops?
With all of that said, Vasily never mentioned his coming into contact with the NKVD barrier troops in his own diary. In fact, something else the movie doesn’t mention is that he volunteered to go to the front lines. He had been serving in the Soviet Navy, but when he volunteered to go to the front lines he was transferred to the Army.
So it’d seem a lot of these scenes weren’t pulled directly from Vasily’s experiences, but more to give an overall sense of what it could’ve been like for a soldier fighting in the Battle of Stalingrad.
Back in the movie, it’s during this chaotic scene when Vasily makes his first kills alongside a young political officer, Commisar Danilov, who’s played by Joseph Fiennes.
The character of Danilov brings up a good point. You see, there’s not a ton of documentation for things that happened at the front lines. That’s not only because of it being from the Soviet Union who, like many governments, we know from history have hidden a lot of documentation from the public eye, but also from the simple fact that we’re talking about something that is happening at the front lines of war. There’s a lot of things that happen in the front lines of war that doesn’t get documented.
While, thankfully, I’ve never been on the front lines, I’d wager that most of what happens on the front lines doesn’t get documented. Instead, we have to rely on the reports after the fact of those who were there.
That means our knowledge of history is spotty at best.
The reason the character of Danilov is a reminder for this point is because we don’t have any documentation of a Commisar Danilov teaming up with Vasily like we saw in the movie.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Danilov is a fictitious character—he is mentioned in the book that the movie is based on; a book by William Craig, who spent over five years researching it. There are some historians who debate his findings, historians who themselves have spent years researching the material.
Well, I can’t spend five years researching this one episode for a weekly podcast, so I’ll defer to William’s research here, but according to him, Danilov was indeed a political officer, however, he didn’t show up until the very end of what would’ve been Vasily’s story in the movie.
So did this scene happen where Vasily met Danilov in a dry fountain surrounded by bodies of their comrades? Honestly, we just don’t know.
Although it is true that junior political officers were thrown into battle alongside soldiers like the movie shows. So it is plausible…but most likely not true.
Going back to the movie, there’s another character that gets introduced soon after this. It’s Nikita Khrushchev as played by Bob Hoskins. While it’s true that Khrushchev was at the front lines in Stalingrad, the movie makes it seem like he’s running the battle.
That’s not true. In fact, it was General Vasily Chuikov who was in charge of defending Stalingrad.
Then there’s another character mentioned on the side opposite to Vasily. I’m speaking, of course, of Ed Harris’ version of Major König.
Major Erwin König is a character in the film that’s much like Commisar Danilov in that…well, we don’t know if he’s real. He’s mentioned in William Craig’s book as Major Konings, and Vasily Zaytsev’s own diary mentions the killing of Erwin König.
However, many historians have debated whether or not he’s real because there’s no apparent documentation to back up the fact that he existed.
That’s really interesting because unlike the Soviet Union which continued to exist after World War II and, by extension, could have hidden much of their documentation, the same isn’t true for the Nazi government. In fact, it’s only because the Third Reich fell that so many top secret documents have made their way into the public eye over the decades.
Certainly not everything, of course. Plenty was destroyed or, as some conspiracy theorists would suggest, covered up by the governments who captured the documents, but for the purpose of our story if Major König was real, we should have a lot more documentation of his existence than we do.
To add to the confusion, Vasily’s diary also mentions another German sniper named Heinz Thorvald. Like Major König, there’s no record of a sniper with that name in German documents. To have one person’s name missing might be accidental, but two?
A lot of conspiracy theorists have suggested that this could lead to Nazi officials deliberately wiping any record of these two snipers from their documents after being killed by Vasily as a matter of trying to cover up their defeat.
But then again, there’s plenty of really weird stuff we’ve found in top secret documents from the Nazis, so could they really hide every last shred of evidence? Maybe it’s more plausible that they never existed.
Or another possible solution could be that his name wasn’t actually König. Sort of like the story we learned recently when we covered the true story behind Ip Man, sometimes things get lost in translation.
In this case, König is German for “King.” So perhaps his surname wasn’t König at all, but rather that was a nickname he earned on the battlefield due to his talents as a sniper. If that’s true, we’ll likely never know who this king of German snipers was.
In either case, what this means for our story today means that…well, unfortunately, that makes it really hard to compare history with each scene because we just don’t know how much of the details of each scene that we saw in Enemy at the Gates is true.
Since so much of the story surrounds the existence of Commisar Danilov and Major König, two people we don’t even know for sure if they were real, it’s hard to prove how much of it happened. All we have to rely for most of it are the words of Vasily himself.
So that begs the question…what did happen according to Vasily?
After crossing the Volga river, Vasily wasn’t rushed into battle right away. Instead, he waited for the order to engage. Until then, the standing order was to wait. So he did. Hours passed. He would later recall that he should’ve been able to tell the time just by looking at the sky—he was, after all, a sailor, and that’s something sailors must know how to do—but he couldn’t. There was just too much smoke filling the air to be able to see the sky.
While they were waiting, the sun began to rise. As it did, the German scouts must’ve seen the new arrivals because without warning mortar rounds began to reign down.
German planes began strafing runs, mortars and bullets flew this way and that. Vasily managed to survive by jumping into a deep crater left by a bomb. Then, rocket launchers from the Red Army on the opposite bank began to fire back. They managed to take out some of the German mortar positions.
Encouraged by their side fighting back, Vasily and the men around him charged.
That attack stopped pretty quickly, though, when German machine-gun nests opened fire on the advancing Soviet troops. The nests were hidden well enough that the troops didn’t have much of a chance.
They withdrew their attack and an officer near Vasily named First Lieutenant Bolshapov ordered Vasily to take out the machine-gun nests with grenades.
Fortunately, Vasily wasn’t hit as he ran up to the nests hidden in the blown-out buildings and tossed in grenades. The nests fell silent and the Soviet assault was on again.
Things really got hot, literally, when other Germans saw the Soviet troops about to flank their position. They called in an air strike to take out the infantry. When the bombs fell, they hit gas tanks nearby and massive flames showered everyone.
Despite many soldiers being burned alive, Vasily recalled that the attack didn’t stop. They tried to strip their uniforms off to relieve the flames, which resulted in burning, naked men attacking the German lines. Some survived. Many did not.
But the Soviet troops had pushed the Germans back from their positions.
Vasily and the remaining Soviet troops took cover in some nearby houses and waited for reinforcements. Mostly, though, they waited for new uniforms to be brought up for the naked soldiers.
The Soviets considered this advance to be a victory. They’d managed to push the Germans back. But there was a lot of work left to be done.
We don’t really know how much time passed, but after a short break taking cover from the continual German bombing runs overhead, Vasily and the rest of the Soviet troops continued their advance.
This time, it was hand-to-hand with the Germans. At one point in something that the movie never shows, Vasily was tackled by a German soldier. He managed to get behind the German and get him in a choke hold. Vasily kept his grip around the German’s neck despite being shaken around like a rodeo.
Finally, the German’s movements slowed…then they stopped. Lying next to the lifeless German, an odd aroma made its way to Vasily’s nostrils. Apparently the German had defecated just before death.
So continued the slow, steady advance by the Soviet troops. Just from this one story of Vasily’s entrance into the Battle of Stalingrad, you can get a sense for how different things actually were and what the movie shows.
Another story the movie doesn’t mention was when Vasily was mistaken for dead.
After the initial assault upon arriving in Stalingrad, the Nazis pushed back. Hard. Every day there would be five or six full-force attacks against the factories the Red Army had captured in their initial assault. Each time, the Soviets held their ground.
But these constant attacks began to wear on the troops.
By the time the next Monday had rolled around, Vasily was exhausted. It had been days since he slept, and as the Nazis began yet another assault, he decided he would try to get some sleep. To do this, he had to make his way back to a bunker where he’d be safe from the attacks.
He managed to crawl his way to what he thought was his bunker before passing out. To give you an idea of how tired he was, he managed to fall asleep despite bombs, mortars and gunfire going off just outside the bunker. The walls and ground shook, but Vasily slept on.
When he awoke, it was dark. Pulling out a pack of cigarettes, Vasily felt around for matches. He managed to find one and lit it. The flickering light illuminated the space around him. He could see what looked like sleeping soldiers.
But wait…their arms and legs. Those are unnatural angles. Those men aren’t sleeping. The match went out, and Vasily lit another one to investigate further.
Then at once it hit him. He wasn’t in the bunker he fell asleep in. At some point, someone must’ve thought he was dead and carried him to a mass grave. He had been sleeping with corpses.
In a panic, Vasily rushed from one end of the corridor to the other. He was surrounded by bodies, concrete walls and mounds of sand with no way out. Starting to hyperventilate, Vasily noticed a shovel on one of the corpses. He grabbed it and started digging through the sand.
On one side he hit a wooden wall. Then he went to another side. Again, a wooden wall. It would seem where there wasn’t concrete walls, wooden walls had been erected around the mass grave.
Just then, his shovel hit a crate. Inside were a bunch of grenades. He backed away, careful not to die by exploding the ordinance. As each minute passed, the air began to stifle Vasily. He knew if he didn’t get out, he’d suffocate. This made him even more frantic which, of course, caused his lungs to suck in even more of the precious air.
He recalled starting to see stars and rainbow colors as he made his last-ditch effort to get out. He pushed his legs with all of his strength against the wooden walls. Once. Twice. On the third push, the wood cracked and Vasily pushed his way through. He was out! Gasping for air, he collapsed on the sand.
After catching his breath, his eyes started to adjust to the new light, he looked back at where he had been. Apparently the Red Army had used an abandoned bunker as the mass grave. Maybe it wasn’t that someone had carried him from his bunker to this one, but Vasily had fallen asleep not in the bunker he thought he had, but for one doomed for a different purpose.
Now, free from the grave, Vasily looked around. About 150 feet away, or 50 meters, Vasily saw a German machine-gun nest. They hadn’t seen him because they were focused on shooting Soviet soldiers coming from the direction of the Volga river.
Then Vasily remembered the crate of grenades. Silently, Vasily made his way back into the bunker-turned-tomb. He grabbed as many grenades as he could carry and crawled back out. With each flare that illuminated the ground, Vasily would stop his movements so the Germans couldn’t tell him from the other bodies and rubble that surrounded him. Then, as darkness surrounded him, he would again move. Slowly.
When he got close enough, Vasily threw the grenades into the factory window that the German machine-gun was shooting out of. He was close enough and the movement of him throwing the grenades was enough that the Germans spotted him. But it was too late. A moment later, the grenades detonated and the nest was silenced.
By the time Vasily made his way back to the Soviet line, he stumbled his way into a Soviet bunker. He was covered in mud, blood and other unsightly filth. At first, no one knew who he was. Then First Lieutenant Bolshapov rushed forward. You’re alive!
After cleaning himself up, he found that the officers were trying to figure out who had silenced the machine-gun nest. They’d been pinned down for hours, unable to move forward until Vasily had knocked them out. But they didn’t send anyone to take out the nest, so who had done it?
In the movie, it’s Commisar Danilov who suggests that the Red Army use Vasily’s story as a morale boost for the Soviet soldiers. It’s this suggestion that gets Vasily transferred to the sniper division.
Well, as we already learned, there’s no mention of someone named Danilov here, but Vasily mentioned telling his amazing story of being buried alive and emerging right next to the German machine-gun nest to someone named Captain Kotov.
No doubt from here, this story of how Vasily had come back from the dead to take out the Nazis was something that spread along the Soviet lines. It was the first time Vasily’s stories would be a morale boost to the Red Army. But it wouldn’t be the last.
Days turned to weeks. The Battle for Stalingrad continued on.
According to Vasily, his path to becoming a sniper began in mid-October, 1942. At this point, he’d been in Stalingrad for about a month and after the initial assault had hardly made any headway, the Germans were throwing soldiers at the Red Army, trying to push through to the Volga river no matter the cost.
The cost was high. Thousands of soldiers died each day.
On one of those days, Vasily was pinned down with First Lieutenant Bolshapov in a crater from a mortar round. A German machine-gun nest was, according to Vasily’s estimates, about 2,000 feet, or about 600 meters away. But because of the bombing, much of Stalingrad had been leveled to the ground, so the gunners had great line of sight across the battlefield.
Any time Vasily tried to raise his head, bullets whizzed by and he was forced back into hiding. One of the soldiers in the crater looked over the edge with a trench periscope. After spotting the Germans, he handed the periscope to Vasily so he could see where they were.
Seeing the Germans, Vasily wasted no time. In a flash, he raised his rifle, aimed quickly and fired, then dropped back down. Looking through the periscope, he could see it was a hit—the German fell to the ground. A few seconds later and two more shots later, two more Germans fell.
It was an impressive bit of shooting, and even moreso considering that Vasily did it with a standard rifle. What he didn’t know at the time was that a Colonel in the Soviet Army had been watching his shots through binoculars. He was impressed, and ordered Vasily be given a sniper rifle and start keeping tally of the Germans he killed.
The movie makes mention of the tally, but doesn’t really give specific numbers throughout most of it. All we see are German helmets growing in number on the printed propaganda.
Well, according to the documents we have, Vasily Zaytsev killed about 32 German soldiers with his standard-issue rifle between the time he arrived at Stalingrad in September of 1942 and early November of 1942 when he was assigned to a sniper rifle.
After that, and until the end of the Battle of Stalingrad, Vasily killed an additional 225 enemy soldiers, including many officers and German snipers.
Oh, and as a little side note, it was around mid-October when Vasily first mentioned a political officer named Danilov joining their troops.
Speaking of snipers, what then, of the main storyline in the film? The sniper battle between Jude Law’s version of Vasily and Ed Harris’ version of Major König?
Well, according to Vasily’s tally, 11 of those 225 enemy soldiers he killed were snipers. So it wasn’t like there was one sniper he managed to best.
Despite historians doubting the existence of a Major König because of what we learned about earlier—there not being any evidence of one in German documents—there is a mention of a sniper’s duel between himself and a Major Konings in Vasily’s memoirs.
Although as you can probably guess, it happens quite a bit differently than what we saw in the movie.
According to his memoirs, Vasily first learned about Major Konings after the Red Army captured a German soldier and interrogated him. Throughout the interrogation, it came out that the Nazis wanted to take out the Soviet snipers and had called upon the director of the Wehrmacht’s sniper school in Berlin to do so: Major Konings.
The Wehrmacht, by the way, was the Nazi German Army.
Despite putting on a front for the Soviet troops around him who insisted that even the head of the German sniper school would be no match for Vasily, Vasily himself admitted that he was hesitant. Up until that point, he’d averaged killing about four or five Germans a day. Meanwhile, he had watched as his friends and comrades died around him. He knew it was only a matter of time before his time came…and he also knew that Major Konings had to have been a tough opponent.
After all, he was the head of their sniper school. He had to be tough. Would this be Vasily’s time come to an end? Maybe.
In the movie, after finding out about Major König, the Red Army brings in someone who trained under him: Nikolai Koulikov. He’s played by Ron Perlman in the film.
Oh, and by the way, his name is spelled “Koulikov” in the movie, but “Kulikov” in Vasily’s memoirs. But then again, Vasily’s own name is spelled “Vassili” in the film and his own memoirs but most historians refer to him as Vasily. Again, we go back to the difference in languages and the possibility that some of the characters from the film, like König, who Vasily called Konings, might be hidden from history simply because we’re looking for the wrong name.
Anyway, Nikolai Kulikov was a real person, but there’s no mention of him training under Major Konings. He was a sniper, though, and was quite a good shot in his own right.
One day, Nikolai and Vasily made their way amidst the rubble of Stalingrad to study the German front lines. They were a part of a rotation, taking the place of two snipers who had watched the front lines the day before.
As their shift was coming to a close with nothing special happening, Vasily noticed something odd. A German helmet rose from the trench and moved slowly down the trench. As he watched, he thought the way the helmet bobbed up and down was quite unnatural. It was a trap.
They didn’t shoot. Instead, they watched. The sun went down, and still they watched. Vasily thought this might be Major Konings trying to get him to shoot and reveal his position.
All night, Nikolai and Vasily remained still. They didn’t move a muscle. The sun rose on their second day. More hours passed. As the sun began to set, Nikolai and Vasily carefully made their way back to the bunker.
On the third day, Danilov joined Nikolai and Vasily at their post. Hours passed without any movement on the German front lines. Then fighting started up between the Germans and Soviets, but Vasily and Nikolai didn’t move despite the bullets whizzing around them.
Suddenly, Danilov shouted. He saw the German sniper! In excitement, he said he’d show Vasily where the German was. Half of a second was all it took. Danilov raised himself up just enough that the German sniper could see him and fire a shot.
Danilov went down. He wasn’t killed, but was wounded by the shot.
Unfortunately, Vasily still couldn’t see where the shot came from. Hours passed with Vasily glued to his scope trying to see the German sniper. Nothing.
But Vasily knew this had to have been Konings. The shot that hit Danilov was so quick, only a master sniper could’ve done that.
On one side of the battlefield was a smoldering tank. On the other side was a pillbox. Surely he wouldn’t hide in any of those. Neither were a good place for a master sniper to hide, Vasily knew. Amidst the rubble between the tank and pillbox, Vasily noticed a sheet of iron. He’d noticed it before but hadn’t thought anything of it. The more he thought about it, the more he thought this sheet of iron might be the perfect snipers spot. Simply dig a little hole underneath it and hide there all day.
To see if he could confirm this was where the German was hiding, Vasily pulled a glove over a small piece of wood and raised it up slightly. Smash! The wood splintered into pieces from the shot.
Ah ha! The German had taken his bait! Nikolai was watching and confirmed that the sniper was hiding under the iron sheet. Now that they knew where he was, all they had to do was wait for him to leave his position.
It was a waiting game.
The night came, and with it a frigid cold. Remember, this is well into the winter of 1942 in Stalingrad, Russia.
Nothing happened that night. As the sun started to rise, both Nikolai and Vasily decided to hide their guns. They were afraid the sun would reflect off their scopes and give away their position to the enemy.
As mid-day came around, so did shade. When it covered their position, Vasily and Nikolai slowly moved their guns back into place. No more fear of a reflection hitting their scopes. From the shade, they could see the sun was beating down on the iron sheet. That’s when Vasily saw it.
A glint of light from the iron sheet. Was that the German sniper’s scope? Or was it just a piece of glass from one of the countless windows that had been blown out from the surrounding buildings?
To find out, Nikolai slowly took off his helmet and raised it up. Again, the German took the bait. He fired. The helmet went flying and to complete the ruse, Nikolai raised up, cried out and then collapsed as if he had been shot.
That’s when Vasily saw the German raise his head for the first time in four days. In a fraction of a second, Vasily took the shot. The German’s head sunk to the ground. He didn’t move.
Nikolai burst out laughing. They’d done it! They killed the master German sniper!
But, after days of no movement, they’d also given up their position. Vasily and Nikolai took off running as fast as they could. And without a moment to spare, the German artillery demolished where they had been hiding.
So the true story appears to be quite different than what we saw in the movie. Nikolai Kulikov wasn’t killed by Major Konings, nor was the political officer, Danilov—although Danilov was wounded.
As the movie comes to a close, the Battle of Stalingrad comes to an end with the Soviets winning and Jude Law’s version of Vasily goes to a field hospital to find another character that we haven’t talked much about. In the film she’s played by Rachel Weisz, and her name is Tania Chernova.
While Tania was a real person, like many of the other characters we’ve learned about so far, there’s been a lot of debate about what she did during the Battle of Stalingrad.
According to some, she was a member of the resistance against the German occupation in Belarus. In this version of history, which the real Tania herself has claimed, she joined the Battle of Stalingrad and trained under Vasily to be a sniper, eventually joining Vasily’s group of snipers and herself being credited with 24 kills. Some stories suggest that Tania was injured by a landmine and sent to a hospital where she heard reports—incorrectly—about Vasily’s death.
The accuracy of these accounts have been debated, though, most notably by author and historian Sir Antony Beevor.
For the book the movie is based on, author William Craig interviewed Tania and does mention a love triangle of sorts between Vasily, Tania and the political officer Danilov. That’s something the movie mentions, but it’s also something that other historians like Sir Antony discount as being pure fiction.
Tania’s name is never mentioned in Vasily’s memoirs, although he does mention a beautiful nurse named Maria Loskutova. But, according to Vasily, Maria—or Masha as she was called—suggested they try to stick through the war like brother and sister. Although according to how Vasily remembered how her uniform couldn’t hide her curves, it’s clear he didn’t think of her as a sister.
So it’d seem the true details of the love story side of the movie are likely something we’ll never really know.
But it is worth pointing out that there are plenty of documented instances of women serving right alongside men in the Red Army, and many more cases of love affairs forming between Soviet soldiers during World War II.
In fact, this month for my patrons I’ll be sharing an audio version of a great article by the World Heritage Encyclopedia that dives deeper into the role of women in the Soviet Union.
For the purposes of our story today, let’s just say there’s not much proof, but it’s plausible.
What we do know is that, like the movie shows, the vicious battle over Stalingrad ended up being a victory for the Soviet Union.
Leading the German troops was Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus. He’d risen quickly, becoming commander of the German Sixth Army after its own commander had been killed on January 20th, 1943.
So it came as a surprise when Paulus, who’d never commanded more than a thousand troops before, all of a sudden took control over nearly 100,000 remaining German troops when he was promoted to Field Marshal.
It was a clear message from Hitler, who had ordered Paulus’ promotion himself—do not surrender. Since no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered, when Hitler promoted Paulus at a point in the fighting when it seemed certain the Germans would lose, it was a clear message—fight to the death.
After being surrounded, cut off from reinforcements and seeing his remaining 91,000 men being sick, wounded and exhausted, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus became the first German Field Marshal to ever surrender on February 2nd, 1943.
That put an end to a battle that began before Vasily joined, on August 23rd, 1942. During those five months, one week and three days, an estimated 728,000 troops were killed on the Axis side while the Soviet Union lost about 1.1 million troops.
To this day, the loss of life during the Battle of Stalingrad marks it as one of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare.
Vasily Zaytsev wasn’t one of those who died in the battle, though. In fact, he left the battle before it was over after a mortar wounded his eyes. After recovering from his injuries, he continued to fight until the end of the war.
After the war came to an end, he became an engineer at a textile factory in Kiev. He remained there until he died at the age of 76 on December 15th, 1991—just ten days before the Soviet Union was dissolved.
On January 31st, 2006, Vasily Zaytsev had his final request to be buried in Volgograd—the city formerly known as Stalingrad—granted when he was reburied with full military honors in the city he’d fought to defend so many decades before.