Sunday, November 11, 2012

#23 - Stalingrad

BACK-STORY:  “Stalingrad” was a major German production released in 1993.  It was directed by Joseph Vilsmaier.  It is in the German language.  I found nothing of particular interest anecdotally

OPENING:  Words on the screen tell us that it is the summer of 1942.  The Germans are in the middle of their second major summer offensive in the Soviet Union.  The goal is the Caspian Sea and the Caucasian oil fields.  The Sixth Army under Gen. Von Paulus is advancing on Stalingrad which will result in the “most brutal battle of the century”.  While these momentous events are taking place, a squad of veterans from North Africa are enjoying an Italian beach.  Their beloved Lt. is being replaced by a Lt. Witzland (Thomas Kretschmann) who is green, an aristocrat, and gung-ho.  He makes an immediate impression on his new charges when he denies the seasoned Sgt. “Rollo” Rohleder a medal because he refuses to button his collar at the decoration ceremony.  We could be looking at a Stransky vs. Steiner dynamic ala “Cross of Iron”.

Witzland rethinking his career path
SUMMARY:  The squad must have done something bad off screen because next thing you know they are being sent to the Eastern Front.  On the train, they are overconfident and brag about kicking Russkie ass.  This attitude is probably due to having recently tangled with the British.  They are about to find out that the Russians are tougher than the Brits and freezing cold is rougher than desert heat.

                When they arrive, we have the obligatory ”in with the new, out with the old loading-the-wounded-on-the- vacated-railway-cars” scene.  The actors are told to be sobered by this sight when in reality these veterans would have seen plenty of death in North Africa.  Speaking of “Cross of Iron”, Witzland has a run in with a sadistic Nazi officer named Haller who is abusing prisoners.  This ‘bad German” will reappear several times throughout the film. 

Reiser with a flammenwerfer
                The squad is attached to a unit commanded by the charismatic Capt. Musk (Karel Hermanek).  They are tasked to capture a factory.  The first death elicits the shock and disbelief you would expect from rookies, not North African vets.  They capture the factory with the aide of flame throwers.  There is confusion (“the fog of war”) and a friendly fire death.  One of the men admits he “shit his pants”.  Only 162 of the original 400 man unit survive to try to hold the position.

                With Soviets just a block away, our boys show typical cameraderie.  The most introspective is Reiser (Dominique Horwitz) who tells a newbie “If you start to think, you go crazy; so I don’t think”.  Witzland decides to defy standing orders and offer a truce to recover the wounded from “no man’s land”.  Humaneness comes to a shattering close when one of the Germans opens fire.  In the chaos, Witzland captures a Russian boy-soldier named Kolya in a move that makes no sense other than as a plot point.

                Still holed up in the factory, Rollo receives a “Dear Johan” letter.  Witzland decides to lead a patrol to find a way out.  This command decision makes no sense (why would he leave his unit behind?), but soon becomes clearly a method to advance the plot.  He gets separated from the rest and runs into a female Soviet soldier named Irina.  Witzland takes her captive, but she pushes him into a sewage pool (including bobbing corpses) and gets away.  What was the point of this encounter?

Bad German is armed and evil
                Reunited with the group, Witzland and the others make it to the hospital where they force an orderly to work on a wounded friend.  “Bad German” suddenly arrives and puts them under arrest.  What are the odds?  They are put in a penal battalion and four weeks later are hunting for mines.  Capt. Musk arrives and offers them a chance for redemption.  All they have to do is defeat a large force of Soviet tanks.  Piece of cake!

You want me to do what with this anti-tank mine?
                They are in fox holes defending a perimeter when the tanks arrive.  Their main weapon is sticky bombs that they have to attach to the tank’s undercarriage.  Lucky for them the tankers are either out of ammunition or feel it’s unsporting to use their main guns!  Kind of like in “Saving Private Ryan” when the tanks did not use their machine guns in the bridge scene.  In a huge upset, the Germans beat off the attack and then abandon the position to return to their hut for some more exposition.  Apparently no need to worry about another attack in that sector.

Sorry, Kolya: orders are orders
                They are put under Bad German’s command and are ordered to act as a firing squad for some Russian prisoners.  Oh, no!  Is that Kolya?  They reluctantly obey orders.  This is the last straw.  Reiser decides to desert and Witzland and Muller join him.  They make it to the airport and fake being wounded, but in the chaos they are not able to board the last plane out.  They return to the hut.

Irina did not enjoy being a sex slave
CLOSING:   As they await the inevitable surrender, a plane drops a crate of supplies in a nearby field.  The guys are gorging on food when Bad German arrives out of the blue and
threatens to shoot them as looters.  He shoots Muller and seems to think his Naziness will cow the desperate, feral, vengeance-minded men.  Wrong!  Before he dies, he reveals that he has a man-cave replete with goodies nearby.  The boys hasten to the lair where they find a mountain of looted goods and a sex-slave tied to a bed.  OMG – it’s Irina!  No wonder the script allowed her to escape in the sewer.  Witzland frees her and plays the gentleman.  He prevents the others from raping her (although they don’t seem very keen on it anyhow).  Suddenly, Capt. Musk starts ranting about them being deserters and wants to return to the front.   Otto commits suicide.  Reiser and Witzland head off with Irina leading.  Rollo sticks around with the dying Musk.  The trio encounter Soviet soldiers and those expecting a happy ending will be disillusioned.

Acting =  C
Action =  7/10
Accuracy =  B
Plot =  C
Realism =  B

Overall =  C

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  The film is not aimed at a female audience, but it does have a major female character and it is not graphic in violence or language.  Not exactly a date movie, but more appealing than most war movies.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The Battle of Stalingrad was the turning point in Europe in the Second World War.  It was the decisive battle on the Eastern Front.  It was precipitated by Hitler’s attempt to finish off the Soviet Union with a grand offensive that would capture the Caucasian oil fields and the strategic city of Stalingrad.  The Sixth Army commanded by General Von Paulus was tasked with capturing the “city of Stalin” on the Volga River.  Things went well at first with the army sledge-hammering its way into the city and eventually controlling 90 % of it.  The losses were enormous on both sides.  Although the Germans cut their way to the banks of the Volga and thus divided the city, the Red Army put up a spirited resistance.  The Soviets created strongpoints and forced the Germans to come to grips which negated their tanks, artillery, and air power.  Buildings, including factories, changed hands numerous times.  The city was turned into rubble which naturally favored the defenders.

                In November, 1942, Marshal Zhukov launched Operation Uranus which entailed pincer offensives north and south of the city that resulted in the encirclement of the Sixth Army within the city.  The Germans were gradually whittled down.  Rations were cut to a bare minimum.  The soldiers were forced to make a watery soup using the bones of dead horses that they dug up.  The winter added to the hardships.  Hitler refused to allow any thought of a breakout, especially after Luftwaffe commander Goering promised to supply the city via air drops.  Goering’s bravado was a pipe dream as the actual tonnage of supply drops was woefully short of the minimum requirements.

                Hitler approved an attempt to break through to the city led by General Von Manstein.  Manstein’s spearhead got to within thirty miles of the city, but Von Paulus (sensing Hitler’s disapproval) refused to launch a break out attempt to link up with the relief force.  The Sixth Army’s fate was sealed.  Eventually 91,000 Germans surrendered.

                The movie is fictional and does not attempt to give an overview of the battle.  It could be set in any number of urban combat scenarios.  As a depiction of the trials of a typical squad of Germans caught up in the battle, it is fairly accurate.   The weapons and equipment are authentic. 

CRITIQUE:  “Stalingrad” an admirable attempt to depict the battle from the perspective of a squad of the losers.  We follow them from the sunny beach in Italy to the frozen rubble of Stalingrad.  They become recognizable personalities.  The unit is heterogeneous, but not too stereotypically so.  It reminded me of “Platoon” in this respect.  However, it does have some archetypes like the cynical veteran sergeant (Rohleder), the idealist (Reiser), the naïve novice (Muller), and the ambitious officer (Witzland).  Unfortunately, the acting is pedestrian and the character development is flawed.  Rollo should have been a strong character, but he does not develop into the insubordinate anti-hero he could have been.  This was disappointing.  Perplexing is more the word for Witzland’s evolution.  He starts as a martinet, becomes an officer on the make, and then suddenly gets sensitive towards the enemy and ends up a deserting pacifist.  While unorthodox, this arc is ridiculous.  The small unit dynamics are realistic and the soldier talk seems true to form.  The interaction between the soldiers is not forced.  It is instructive to see that the non-S.S. soldiers behaved like soldiers from any World War II army.  Remember that not all German soldiers were Nazi fanatics.  The movie also throws in a female Soviet soldier and a boy soldier, but the roles come off as attempts to humanize the Germans because they treat these enemy well.  In reality, the Wehrmacht was not exactly sensitive toward those two types.  Plus their appearances in the narrative are too plot enhancing.  Speaking of which, the whole Bad German role was dripping with cliché.

                The movie is technically sound.  The cinematography is average after the opening battle which featured some hand-held and point of view.  The music is sadly trite.   The movie does get the look of Stalingrad.  The dead bodies.  The rubble.  The sewer system.  However, much of the movie is set outside the city on snowy plains.  I feel the movie wimped out on showing the real hellish nature of the battlefield.  Showing a character in a sewer with bobbing corpses was not enough.

                The plot is not smooth.  It does not integrate the big picture into the small world of the squad.  It is one thing to depict the “fog of war”, but the audience should have an idea of why things are disintegrating.  Too many incidents in the plot foreshadow future developments.  This is the kind of movie that when an enemy character suddenly is injected into the plot and then exits, you know they will be reappearing.  It was apparently a small world in Stalingrad.

                The themes are appropriate.  Vilsmaier is interested in filming the futility of war.  What better way to make this point than focus on a German squad at Stalingrad?  There’s no debating the movie is solidly anti-war.  It also tends to be anti-military.  Although Witzland and Musk are shown in a positive light, Haller (Bad German) is meant to represent the German officer corps.  The other theme is comradeship.  In this respect, the film does not break any new ground and does not compare well to movies like “Platoon”.  The interplay is average in realism.

CONCLUSION:  I bought a DVD copy of “Stalingrad” before I started this blog project and held off watching it until I reached its place on the Greatest 100 list.  This means I had been looking forward to viewing it for over two years.  I had every reason to believe I would enjoy it.  It appeared on the surface to be my kind of war movie.  Plus I am fascinated by the Battle of Stalingrad and have read books on the subject.  I was shocked at how disappointing the movie was.  It is very overrated.  Sources that I trust rated it as a great war movie.  They are wrong!  The best way to prove my point is to compare it to its closest equivalents.  It is absolutely inferior to “Cross of Iron” and “Enemy at the Gates”.  COI is much better at small unit dynamics and has much more vivid characters.  Rollo cannot carry Steiner’s boots.  As far as EATG, the plot is much stronger and the rubble is more rubblier.  Not to mention the female and youth characters are much more compelling.

                I think a case can be made for “Stalingrad” being in the 100 Best War Movies mainly because of its subject matter – a German squad in the Battle of Stalingrad.  However, the execution of the concept is flawed.
POSTER:  The poster does convey the fact that it is hard to distinguish the various characters.  You alos get the impression that it is not the feel good movie of the year.  Grade = B
the factory scene
the trailer


  1. We have to agree that we disagree on this. I've seen this many times and
    it will always be one of my favourites and I'd say one of the ten best ever made. Neither Cross of Iron nor the much tackier Enemy at the Gates are half as good. Maybe a translation thing or because you had to wait so long.

  2. I respect your view, but I stick with my feelings. I do not believe that it was because my expectations were too high. I was predisposed to like it. I just feel there is nothing really special about it. I strongly feel the other two movies are better. I also think it could have been a lot better. I will say that it is better than Col. Blimp.

  3. Enemy at the gates? Haha you are kidding right? Stalingrad is a war movie, Enemy at the Gates is "adventure and action in Stalingrad" movie.

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  5. Even I too liked 'Stalingrad' there are very few movies from German favs are Das Boot, Downfall, Stalingrad. There should be a movie which emphasize on Panzer Units & their exploits on Tiger Tanks. Recently 'Fury' was screened even though I enjoyed it I still would believe Germans were way good shooters than what they portrayed over the screen, specially if you look at AT guns crews on how they coordinated defensive role. History tells they were really good....we still are yet to see movies which show cases mobile Flak 88 in action, after all it had earned its name as the best Anti Air Gun as well as an incredible tank killer

  6. The 88 was indeed a beast and has not gotten its due in war movies. "Fury"'s use of a real Tiger was the highlight of that movie.

  7. A mistake often made : Paulus was not "von" Paulus. Just Friedrich Paulus. He was no aristocrat.

  8. I have to disagree on this one. Stalingrad has been one of my favorite war movies of all time. It think it captures the despair of the German troops and the merciless fighting on the eastern front. Although I have to say this with the reservation that it has been 10+ years since I've last seen the movie.

    1. I realize I am in the minority on this movie and you are with the majority. I guess I need to rewatch it.

  9. I appreciate a review like this, I want war movies to be truly as realistic as possible down to the tactics of the soldiers. I was debating watching this film because I had heard it was realistic. but when I saw it is meant to be "anti-war" then it probably wouldnt try too stay true to military tactics and what happened at stalingrad


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.