February 17, 2014 Leave a comment
When German officer Peter Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) detonates the army’s fuel supplies in advance of a Soviet invasion, Captain Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) finds himself in command of the surviving few, including marksman Chavanov (Dmitriy Lysenkov) and Astakhov (Sergey Bondarchuk Jr). They take shelter in a derelict house in the centre of town, inheriting the building’s sole remaining tenant (Mariya Smolnikova) and making a stand against the Germans, who owned the building previously. Kahn — who is being reprimanded by his superiors for fraternising with a Russian woman (Yanina Studilina) — is ordered to take the building back, by whatever means necessary.
It’s perhaps not the optimum moment for a Russian propaganda film, what with the country’s human rights violations marring even the Winter Olympics. Stalingrad is a full-blown, flag-waving war movie; the sort of indulgence for which audiences regularly forgive America, but here because it relates to Russia may well prove rather more difficult to stomach.
Coming from a more objective perspective, or at least a less politicised one, however, Stalingrad isn’t anywhere near as problematic. Loosely modeled on the real-life struggle for the Pavlov house, it’s epic, stylish and uncompromising in its depiction of war. It’s patriotic — of course it is — but it’s too balanced to be considered propaganda. Many Western war movies wouldn’t bother to humanise the Nazi contingent, yet Stalingrad splits its screentime almost evenly between trenches.
An ambiguous and annoyingly unexplained framing device aside, set for some reason during the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, it’s difficult to find real fault with the film, beyond the usual cliches and contrivances. It looks for all the world like a Zach Snyder movie, all slow-motion and colour filters, but thanks to the careful direction of Fedor Bondarchuk that is precisely where the similarities end. His vision is dirty and grounded, simultaneously on fire and smothered under choking ash.
Although fabled for being the bloodiest war in history, Stalingrad‘s portrayal of its namesake conflict is conspicuously light on crimson. Even without excessive gore, however, Bondarchuk’s film is still incredibly powerful. You can almost feel the heat radiating from the screen during the opening assault, as soldiers scramble over the banks of the Volga, many of them already on fire. It might be breathtaking if it wasn’t so harrowing to watch. The stunning sound mix makes you feel every shot, while composer Angelo Badalamenti ensures you remember ever death. In an equally trying scene, a mother and child are burnt alive aboard a barricaded bus.
If the budget and story are on a par with American war movies, the performances are substantially above the pale. We are saved the usual histrionics, and although the relationships have shades of melodrama the actors play their roles so straight that while it’s difficult to warm to them it’s easy to respect them. Fyodorov, Lysenkov and Bondarchuk Jr make the biggest impression among the Russian soldiers, evoking admiration, hatred and sympathy between them. Unexpectedly, it is the German officer played by Kretschmann who stands out most, despite a trite romance with a Russian woman which soaks up most of his screentime. Thankfully, Smolnikova is on hand to save the film from accusations of misogyny.
Costing $30 million, and available in IMAX 3D, Stalingrad is a new breed of Russian blockbuster. That it was also named as Russia’s Oscar entry for this year’s Academy Awards goes to show just how impressive Bondarchuk’s film is. Stunning yet spartan, melodramatic yet measured, patriotic yet pessimistic, Stalingrad is a movie of great depth, intelligence and artistic merit.