Film Review: Stalingrad

This dutifully patriotic grind of an IMAX 3D Russian war movie turns the Battle of Stalingrad into a struggle for the hearts of two women.

The months-long Battle of Stalingrad was one of the greatest clashes between two armies that the world ever saw. A bloody crucible into which both Russian and German armies poured tens of thousands of men over a period of months until it took on its own gravitational pull, it was almost a war unto itself. Viewers of Fedor Bondarchuk’s oddly remote war film will have some idea of this, because the constant, almost haranguing narration informs them of the battle’s importance. Not much that happens onscreen, however, makes that point clear.

In late 1942, the Russian army crosses the Volga River on a foggy night, trying to surprise the Germans holding the far bank of a blasted-to-pieces Stalingrad. Although scouts sent ahead try to stop the Germans from blowing their fuel tanks to halt the advance, the alarm is raised and the tanks erupt into hill-size fireballs. No matter, though, these Russians are tough customers: The Germans are shocked to find their enemy emerging out of the smoke, wreathed in flame but still charging and shooting like the good peasant-soldiers they are. The Germans are routed in short order. A small knot of surviving Russians hunker down in a decimated house strategically placed between their tenuous beachhead and the Wehrmacht.

Grim-faced Russian captain Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) fights to keep his ad-hoc squad together while across a blasted square sits his German counterpart, the cynical and dissolute Peter Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann). Each of them has a goodhearted Russian woman to protect. Gromov watches over the angelic Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), whom his men adopt as a kind of surrogate sister. Kahn ravishes and stares moodily at his blonde mistress, Masha (Yanina Studilina), who is very clearly only with him as a means to an end.

With those two men facing off, one would expect Stalingrad to turn into some stouthearted celebration of Motherland pride that would befit a 3D IMAX spectacle released in time for the 70th anniversary of the battle’s grim conclusion. All of that is certainly there, from “Burn in hell, scum” dialogue to scene after scene of the scrappy and outnumbered Russians making mincemeat of their arrogant enemies. The house the soldiers occupy is based on an apartment building that played a crucial role in the real battle, and there’s a long, loving tracking shot around the city’s iconic Children’s Dance fountain. As a kicker, there’s even a prissy, arrogant German colonel who eats his meals off fine china in the middle of a war zone.

But there’s a lot else besides, and little of it good. The windy screenplay from Sergey Snezhkin and Ilya Tilkin was inspired in part by Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate, but needless to say there isn’t much cynicism or digs at the Stalinist state here. Bondarchuk’s translation of their story makes for a confused muddle of toneless sentimentality and slo-mo 3D porn that can cross into comedy (the shell that a Russian solder fires in lovingly captured bullet-time, banking off a tank turret into a German ammunition depot) when it’s not simply distracting. Lastly, and most bafflingly, is the framing device set after the Fukushima tsunami. Perhaps it’s there simply to provide a reason for there to be an overarching narrative that lays out in poundingly simplified terms everything the audience hadn’t already figured out for themselves.

Stalingrad is a battle, all right. But it’s one that the audience loses.