Saturday, November 3, 2018


                I recently read the book Stalingrad: How the Red Army Triumphed by Michael K. Jones.  I have had an interest in the battle since I was a teenager when I read Enemy at the Gates by William Craig.  Although the battle has many fascinating aspects, the two most famous legends are those of the sniper duel and Pavlov’s House.  Craig’s coverage of Vasily Zaitsev’s duel with a German sniper became the basis for the movie “Enemy at the Gates”.  The movie used a lot of artistic license to expand a tale that may have been mostly propaganda swallowed by Craig to begin with.  I was intrigued by the tale of Pavlov’s House and looked for any movie that featured it.  I discovered that a movie called “Stalingrad” that was released in 2013 was based on the incident.

                The movie takes the basics of Pavlov’s House and turns it into dual love stories.  Pavlov is called Sgt. Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) in the movie.  He and four others assault the building and take it in a blaze of gunfire and grenades.  The unit consists of a vengeance-minded warrior, a class clownish sniper, a famous tenor, a reluctant spotter, and the gruff Gromov.  They encounter a young woman named Katya (Maria Smolnikova) who lives alone in the building.  The men develop a fondness for her.  At one point they go to a lot of trouble to give her a hot bath and a cobbled birthday cake for her birthday.  Sergey (Sergey Bondarchuk, Jr.) falls in love with her.  The quintet is joined by a few others for the defense of the house.  Meanwhile, on the other side of no man’s land, the Germans are desperate to regain the strategic position.  Hauptmann Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) is tasked with this by his evil Nazi boss.  Kahn is a good German who is disillusioned with the war.  He is having a creepy love affair with a Russian hottie named Masha (Yanina Studilina) who reminds him of his wife.  This all builds to the inevitable final German assault on the building. 

                I have already reviewed this movie so I am going to concentrate on how it jibes with the story of Pavlov’s House.  This analysis is problematical because it is hard to separate reality from propaganda when dealing with the incident.  Clearly, any movie would concentrate on the propaganda version.  A good story is a good story.  The official version is that Sgt. Pavlov and a small reconnaissance platoon stormed the building losing thirty men and being left with only six.  The battle took three hours and was a room to room orgy of grenades and machine guns.  The four-story apartment building was located at a strategic part of the front and created a salient in the German line.  It overlooked a square and blocked German attempts to reach the Volga River in this area.  The movie does a good job with the setting.  Pavlov discovered that there were civilians that were taking refuge in the basement.  He was joined by reinforcements led by a Lt. Afanasiyev, so Pavlov was only briefly in command.  Reinforcements arrived by way of a trench dug to connect to another building.  According to official reports, the defenders numbered about two dozen and they represented the variety of soldiers in the Soviet infantry.  The Soviets quickly recognized the morale value of a successful and gallant example of Stalin’s Order 227 which called for “not one step back”.  Early on, the Soviets began referring to the building as “Pavlov’s House”.  Actually, the true hero was a Capt. Naumov who was in command for most of the 58 day siege.  The house was assaulted numerous times by the Germans, but a combination of heavy machine guns, grenades, and an anti-tank rifle (at least a dozen German tanks were taken out) kept them at bay.  Naumov was killed and Pavlov was wounded and evacuated after an attack on a nearby building.

                Recent scholarship shows even Anthony Beevor’s acclaimed Stalingrad exaggerated the incident.  Apparently, Pavlov and five others snuck into the house and disposed of about a dozen Germans as they were chilling.  They did find civilians in the basement, in fact they told the patrol about the Germans upstairs.  The six men were reinforced within hours by Afanasiyev.  For most of the siege, the defenders totaled well above two dozen.  They were well-armed.  And they were predominantly Russian, not a mixture of ethnicities.  And they were not all infantry.  And the Germans never came close to retaking the building.  The Soviet propaganda left out the extensive barbed wire and anti-tank and anti-personnel mines surrounding the house.  Soviet artillery support also was downplayed because it was a big part of the success of the garrison in beating off attacks.  That did not fit the narrative of a small band of brothers holding out against incredible odds.

                The Battle of Stalingrad has been the grist for several movies.  Besides this one and “Enemy at the Gates”, there are the highly regarded “Stalingrad” (1993) and “Stalingrad:  Dogs Do You Want to Die?”  “Enemy” is the most closely similar in that it because it also covers a legend and it shoe-horns a romance in.  It has the luxury of being able to get away with more artistic license because the sniper duel is vaguely historical.  “Enemy” has its haters (I am not one), but it clearly is a better movie than “Stalingrad” (2013).  If you watch it for a tutorial on Pavlov’s House, you won’t even get the propaganda version.  The civilians in the basement are replaced by one lovable young lady.  None of the fighting reflects the actual battle.  It does attempt to portray both sides, but the Kahn character and his romance is ludicrous.  The combat is highly unrealistic and does a disservice to the actual battle (or even the propaganda battle).  The audience the movie was aimed at was clearly not history buffs.

                I recently read a novel about the incident entitled Pavlov’s House by Russell Burgess.  Being a novel, it clearly takes liberties with the story, but it adheres to the legend much better than “Stalingrad” (2013).   There is plenty of action and the romance makes a lot more sense.  There is female character who is based on Mariya Ulyanova, who may have actually taken part in the defense.  Someday a good movie may be made about Pavlov’s House.  The screenwriter would be wise to adapt this book. 


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