With Mariya Smolnikova, Yanina Studilina, Pyotr Fyodorov, Thomas Kretschmann, Sergey Bondarchuk. Written by Sergey Snezhkin, Ilya Tilkin. Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk. Rated R for sequences of war violence. 131 minutes.
If it’s unusual for a Russian film to get a big American release, it’s even more unusual that the movie is being presented in 3D and IMAX. Even more than the supernatural thrillers “Nightwatch” and “Daywatch,” the release of STALINGRAD suggests a Russian movie industry that wants to compete on the 21st century world stage. If it is, in some ways, an old-fashioned war movie, it has the benefit of not only providing some impressive spectacle, but telling American viewers about a World War II battle about which they may know little.
For Russians, the Battle of Stalingrad resonates the way Gettysburg does for Americans. It was the biggest and bloodiest battle in Russian history. It was a key turning point in the war as it marked the end of the German advance into Russia, but it came at a terrible price.
Since this is a drama and not a documentary we get little of the battle’s historical significance beyond that, and little sense of the wider scope of the battle or, indeed, the war. Instead, it is told in flashback by an old Russian explaining how he came to have five fathers. The Germans, eager to reach the Volga River, find their way is blocked by a building held by a ragtag but intrepid group of Russians soldiers. As the Russians dig in to defend their position they discover Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), an 18-year-old girl who has refused to flee the city. Each of the men fall in love with her and find themselves taking action as much on her behalf as for Stalin and Mother Russia, much to the consternation of their commander.
Meanwhile, the Germans are intent on pressing on, but Capitan Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) has been conducting an affair with a Russian woman who resembles his dead wife, which leads to further complications on their side. If you get the sense that “Stalingrad” is as much soap opera as war film you would be right, at least until some of the brutal battle scenes where we not only see shootings, knifings, and bombings, but soldiers in flames continuing to fight on in order to take as many Germans with them as they can.
In many ways, “Stalingrad” resembles many older American war films in which soldiers from all walks of life start out without connection but end up uniting to fight for the cause. Katya proves to be not a distraction but the embodiment of what the men love about their country, whether it is the small towns they left behind, the careers they had to put aside, or the dreams they have for the future. Just as “Saving Private Ryan” used D-Day as a means to tell personal stories, so does this film use the most famous battle in Russian history.
Combining live action with CGI, “Stalingrad” does convey the sense of a city under siege so effectively that we’re startled to learn that there are people trying to live and survive there while the fighting goes on. It also acknowledges that while not all Germans were Nazis, there were plenty of Germans ready and eager to follow orders, believing their enemies–including the Russians–to be sub-human.
On the IMAX screen and in 3D, “Stalingrad” thrusts you into the midst of the battle. While it fails as a history lesson, it scores in bringing home the emotional impact of the event, which might explain why this shattered box office records for a Russian movie. As a very different American movie put it long ago, “When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.”•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.