“Stalingrad” is a Russian movie directed by Fedor Bondarchuk (son of the legendary Sergei who was responsible for the masterpiece “War and Peace”). It is the most costly Russian film to date at $30 million. It was the first Russian movie filmed in IMAX 3D technology. It was Russia’s submission for Best Foreign Language film for the Academy Awards, but was not nominated. It did win awards in Russia and was a big hit.
The movie is based on the famous defense of Pavlov’s House during the battle. The house was actually an apartment building located next to the Volga River. For a month, Sgt. Pavlov and a platoon of Red Army soldiers held out against numerous German assaults.
The movie opens very strangely so don’t leave the theater thinking you have wandered into the wrong movie. The first scene is in Japan after the recent tsunami. A Russian is helping to rescue victims that are buried in rubble. He refers to being the son of one mother and five fathers. This leads to a flashback to Stalingrad in November, 1942.
Sgt. Gramov (Pyotr Fyodorov) leads a squad of scouts across the Volga to infiltrate a building strategically located on the river bank. The building had been possessed by the Germans who have been pushed back across the open square. The lone inhabitant of the apartments is a chaste young lady named Katya (Maria Smolnikova). She refuses to leave her home and develops a sisterly relationship with the five squad members. Meanwhile on the German side, Hauptmann Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) is involved with a trampy Russian woman named Masha (Yanina Studilina). This puts him in hot water with his commanding officer. To get out of this dilemma, he must take the building for der Fuhrer. Gramov and his comrades must hold the building for sister Katya and Mother Russia.
The action is almost totally confined to the square and the set is amazing. It took six months to construct and it is very authentic looking. War movie lovers will recognize the fountain where Vasily makes his first kill in “Enemy at the Gates”. From this confined space the plot lays out the two romances and the assaults. The assaults are in a style similar to recent South Korean cinema like “Tae Guk Gi” and “My Way”. Or Bondarchuk’s own “The 9th Company”. He attempts to top himself with the opening crossing of the Volga which has a feel similar to “Enemy at the Gates”, but amps up when Kahn triggers a massive gas explosion that does not stop the patriotic Russians who literally charge the Germans while aflame! The ridiculousness of this bodes well for the camp potential of the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the expected onslaught of mindless violence with little exposition does not pan out. Large stretches of the film are devoted to the relationship that develops between the five scouts and Katya. The men become protective of her and there may be more than sisterly love developing. Paralleling this is Kahn’s twisted affair with Masha (who reminds him of his deceased wife). She despises him, partly because she is marked as a collaborator by her people. This may not be a Hollywood movie, but you may be able to guess where this dysfunctional relationship is going.
When the violence comes it is pretty visceral, but not revolutionary and sadly, truncated. There is a lot of random slo-mo and some graphic effects. There is surprisingly little bloodshed and in one crucial scene a main character is machine gunned in the back with no blood and not even bullet holes. The scenes are action-packed, but tend to come to abrupt ends that make little sense. The movie is also tactically unsound. The Germans do not use artillery support most of the time and only call in tanks towards the end for the big final assault. One of the five is a sniper who apparently does not believe in shooting all the easy targets that fill his scope as the Germans routinely expose themselves. In fact, the first victim of his weapon is shot by Katya! The only other victim is a female (after he passes up a shot at a German officer). It’s stupid things like this that make the movie aggravating. Other implausibilities include one of the scouts being a famous tenor which results in a song for Katya’s birthday. There is also the calling in of an air raid that arrives almost immediately and defies the German control of the air.
The acting is a strength of the movie. Kretschmann is the only actor I recognized. He played in the 1993 “Stalingrad” and had a nice role in “Downfall”. He stands out, but his character is similar to the others in their lack of development. We get little background on the men or women. The dialogue does not help as it is boring and does not ring like soldier talk. It is not salty for a modern war film and does not have the edgy humor you would expect from comrades in a sticky situation.
As far as accuracy, the movie does not claim to be the true story of the Pavlov House although the basics are there. Gromov fits Pavlov. In reality, the building was much more stoutly fortified with machine guns in each window and an effectively used anti-tank gun on the roof. The shortages of food and water that beset the defenders are not highlighted in the film. The building survived the battle, as did Pavlov. The truth is that a movie more literally based on the defense of the building would have been much better than this movie. Don’t hold your breath until another movie based on Stalingrad appears.
The biggest problem and the scary aspect of the movie is that it reminds me of a throw-back to Soviet movies before the Khruschev thaw. The film comes off as an Old School propaganda piece complete with the bombastic score. Bondarchuk tries to avoid ass-kissing accusations by having one Russian slightly leering and psychopathic and by having one German (Kahn) love-stricken. He’s not fooling anyone. The movie is a puff piece with bells and whistles. It is troublesome that the movie is a step backward from “9th Company”. For decades Russian filmmakers have produced war films that did not toe the party line, now we get a big budget movie that must be a favorite of Putin. Is it a coincidence that this ode to Mother Russia comes out as Putin dreams of recreating the Soviet Union?
I was hoping “Stalingrad” would be a guilty pleasure and an improvement over the previous four movies on the battle, alas it is neither. The IMAX 3D visuals are cool, but not awesome. The movie makes the huge mistakes of reminding one of “Enemy at the Gates” which had a much stronger plot and “Tae Guk Gi” which had much more violence in quantity and quality.