Sunday, December 13, 2015

SHOULD I READ IT? Stalingrad: Dogs, Do You Want To Live Forever? (1959)

                “Stalingrad: Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever?” is a German movie made around the time German prisoners taken on the Eastern Front were returning home.  The few that survived captivity, that is.  It is noteworthy for its realistic take on the ultimate Wehrmacht disaster. 

                The movie opens with a narrator telling us that the year is 1942 and things are about to take a turn for the worst for the German army in the Soviet Union.  A Soviet counterattack is coming and this will be the story of some of the survivors of that maelstrom.  The main character is Oberleutnant Wisse (Joachim Hansen).  He has been assigned as liaison officer to a Rumanian unit.  You don’t see that role in many movies!  On the way to his posting, he helps a Soviet girl named Katya (Sonja Ziemann) avoid being deported.  When he arrives at the Rumanian camp, the officer he is replacing is in a big hurry to leave.  Oh, oh.  Another officer warns him about his superior – Major Linkmann (Wolfgang Preiss -  Rommel in “The Longest Day”).  Linkmann appears to be a kool-aid drinking Nazi.  The Rumanian general complains about the lack of everything.  The movie makes the point that the Rumanian allies were not so much incompetent as they were ill-supported. 

                On Nov. 11, they know the attack is coming.  Linkmann tells Wisse that the Hitler is using the Rumanians as cannon fodder and they will escape when the shit hits the fan.  Wisse turns action hero by blowing up a Soviet tank before they retreat.  Winter arrives.  They are trapped and Gen. Von Paulus resists advice that he needs to break out while they still can.  Wisse remains optimistic while the other officers grumble and criticize Hitler.  The rescue effort by Gen. Hoth (bizarrely subtitled “Hooth”) is chronicled.  Von Paulus remains pig-headed.  Meanwhile, Wisse is transferred to an artillery battery.  Guess who his new commanding officer is?  Linkmann.  He has morphed into Capt. Cooney from “Attack!”  In other words, he talks the talk, but is a closet coward.  He also reminds one of Capt. Stransky from “Cross of Iron”.  He stays in his bunker most of the time while he spouts about the greatness of der Fuhrer.  Until he decides he wants to take Stalin up on that surrender offer.  The movie is not just a two man show.  Wisse has his buddies Bose, Kramer, and Konowsky.  They make a likeable quartet making the best of a very bad situation.  And there is a surprise reappearance of a damsel who returns a favor.  No kiss because it’s not that kind of movie. The movie covers the entire siege of Stalingrad and ends with the German surrender.
Katya and Wisse go on a date

                This movie was a revelation for me.  It is not very well known and has been overshadowed by the other Stalingrad movies like “Enemy at the Gates” and “Stalingrad” (1993).  I could make a case that it is the best of the lot.  Once again, I am amazed that after five years and over 200 war movie reviews, I still am seeing excellent movies that I have never seen before.  And I am also stunned at how accessible war movies are now.  There is no way I could be doing this even ten years ago.  Netflix has been the Holy Grail, but You Tube is also wonderful for war movie buffs.  I found this movie on You Tube.  We have come so far since my childhood when we would wait an entire year for the next network showing of “The Great Escape”.  What an incredible world for cinephiles!

                “Stalingrad:  Do You Want to Live Forever?” gives both the macro and micro view of the most important battle of WWII.  It is by far the best Stalingrad movie for those who want to learn about the battle from the German point of view.  Hell, you get actors portraying Von Paulus and Hitler!  The movie is excellent on command decisions.  The narration does an great job with the big picture.  We have a clear idea what the strategic situation is.  For example, the narrator explains that Goering’s supply air lift was a failure.  The movie has a documentary feel to it and uses archival footage effectively although some might carp about weapons systems appearing out of chronology.  Although a German film, it is not propagandistic.  It is fair to both sides and especially fair to the woeful Rumanians.  It does not sugarcoat the mistakes the Germans made, but it does omit the atrocities by both sides.

                The big surprise is in the production values.  The cinematography is nicely done and the archival footage is fairly seamless.  An interesting touch is the fading out of the scenes.  You don’t see that very often in a war movie.  The movie does a good job depicting the effects of the wintery weather.  The rubble is well-rendered and the sound effects of battle are realistic.  The acting is a real strength.  Preiss is his usual solid self and adds some gravitas as the only recognizable actor for an American audience.  Did he make any non war movies?  The rest of the cast is good, especially Hansen.  The characters are appealing and the movie even manages to get a female character in.  Katya bookends the movie in an unrealistic, but entertaining way.  The soldiers behave naturally and the dialogue fits.   The movie is not without clichés.  Linkman is your typical odious Nazi sycophant.  Wisse is a bit too good to be true. His arc from committed to disillusioned is a stretch, but represents a basic theme of the German soldier in the winter of 1942.

                War movie lovers need to see this movie.  And it’s so easy to do now that we have it on You Tube.  Don’t let the subtitles scare you away.  It is one of the 100 Best War Movies ever made.


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