Staging ‘Stalingrad’: Fedor Bondarchuk commands a Russian war epic in IMAX 3D
The first Russian production in IMAX 3D, Stalingrad depicts a pivotal battle against German forces during World War II. Shot between September 2011 and August 2012, the movie includes massive battle scenes with scores of extras and period weaponry recreated from scratch.
But according to director Fedor Bondarchuk, he was more interested in examining the people who took part in the battle than in effects. In Manhattan for publicity screenings, the director spoke about creating a "new mythology" about the war, even if it meant tackling an event that had traditionally been off-limits to artists.
"We don't have comics about World War II," Bondarchuk says. (Although he speaks excellent English, he often deferred to producer Michael Schlicht for help translating.) "We don't have superheroes. For us it is a kind of 'sacred territory.' And to enter this territory, you could either make a documentary, or do something monumental."
Instead, Bondarchuk took a more intimate approach, focusing on a handful of individuals over a three-day stretch during the heart of the battle. They include Gromov (Petr Fedorov), "a god of war," with battle experience in Finland and the Spanish Civil War; Chvanov (Dmitry Lisenkov), a sniper whose anger over the murder of his family spills into his work; Peter Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann), a Wehrmacht officer ordered to open a path through the Russians to the Volga; and his mistress Masha (Yanina Studilina), shunned by both the Russians and Germans.
Bondarchuk, who directed The 9th Company (2005), based on a real-life battle from the Soviet war in Afghanistan, was reluctant to take on Stalingrad at first. What convinced him to commit to the project was the chance to work for the IMAX 3D screen. The 3D process required some adaptations. More wide shots, for example, since close-ups were technically difficult.
"But without 3D, I would never have made this film," Bondarchuk declares. "This was very dangerous to do. It's not a Marvel or DC cartoon, it's a war drama. Up until Gravity, 3D was mere entertainment. None of my colleagues believed in 3D, no one wanted to follow me, because they were all afraid that the entertainment part would kill the dramatic part."
"Fedor thought the 3D through from the beginning," Schlicht adds. "He avoided any attempt to be aggressive to the audience. He didn't want to spread the movie out into the audience," the producer says, stretching out his arms. "He wanted to bring the audience into the movie." Bondarchuk smiles, drawing his arms to his torso.
The director praises stereographer Matthew Blute (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), saying that he went over the shooting script with him before showing it to cinematographer Maxim Osadchiy. "For Blute it was also a new territory," he asserts. "We got to discuss how to make this together."
The large-format IMAX screen affected how Bondarchuk edited Stalingrad. "We had to return to the classic school of montage," he says. "Work more with editing within the frame rather than cutting, which means a lot of rehearsals. And they're more complicated because we have to account for the post-production work."
Stalingrad has some 230 CGI shots, but what is striking about the movie is how realistic, and intense, its battle scenes seem. Crew members constructed entire buildings from foam blocks, which meant they could be destroyed and then rebuilt quickly, if necessary. "To be frank, at the end of the day very little remained of what we shot," Bondarchuk laughs.
Much of Stalingrad focuses on Russian soldiers and civilians trapped in an apartment building, waiting for the Nazis to attack. But a major subplot details the troubled affair between Kahn and Masha, material that pushed both Kretschmann and Studilina into emotionally demanding scenes.
"First of all, about Kahn, we wanted to change the perception of the German army," Bondarchuk says. "We wanted to make sure that viewers didn't see them as stupid or idiots. They were very sophisticated, educated officers and soldiers, not caricatures. That way we could demonstrate the heroism of the Russian Soviet Army, that they could overcome such opponents."
As written, Kahn's role depicts him as thoughtful, even ambivalent about what he is ordered to do. But Kretschmann adds his own personality to the character. An East German native who trained for the Olympic swimming team, the actor threw himself into the role. "Just imagine one million soldiers like Thomas Kretschmann," Bondarchuk says admiringly.
"I had imagined what Kahn would be like," Studilina recalls, "but once I met Thomas, once I saw him act, the role became completely different. He gave me different emotions, he was more—not polite, but more like a gentleman."
The actress had appeared on television and in miniseries before being cast in Stalingrad. (She has also studied at the Lee Strasberg Institute.) Her Masha is a demanding role. Seen as a collaborator, she is hated by the Russians she lives with in the basement of a crumbling building. Apart from Kahn, the Germans consider her subhuman.
"I was closed off on the set," Studilina remembers. "I didn't talk to anyone. Sometimes for a part, I come to the set, we are doing this thing, it's going on and going on and then, okay, goodbye, back to my family. This time I kept my family away, I told them, 'Hey, you guys, I love you but I want to concentrate on my character.' You know it may sound crazy, but I would see Masha in my dreams. I would think about her every night back in my room."
What made Studilina's scenes with Kretschmann more challenging is that neither speaks the other's language. "We didn't do a lot of rehearsals," she notes. "For Thomas, his process is he will ask Fedor to shoot once and then watch it to see what it's like. But we shot our scenes chronologically, so our feelings sort of grew naturally. It was more interesting for us because the words didn't matter, it was what was underneath that counted."
Bondarchuk started his career as an actor, and still performs occasionally. He met Studilina while both were appearing in a miniseries. "I understand all the details," he says, "all the problems actors have."
Studilina agrees. "At the beginning you are getting used to the director, what he wants, how he says what to do. But by the end of the shooting for Stalingrad, we've finished the wide shot, Fedor comes up and just looks at me. And I say, 'I get you, we'll do it like that,' and I'm thinking, 'Oh my god, now he understands me without even saying a word.'
"Fedor is really friendly," she continues. "He's smiling a lot but if he wants something, he gets it. I don't know how to explain it really, he will be really polite, he just wants to talk. And then he sees something in my eyes, that I'm ready, he will say, 'Okay now, we can do this without a rehearsal.'"
For Stalingrad, Bondarchuk also directed his son Sergey, who plays a soldier named Astakhov. "That was the craziest part of the production," Schlicht reveals. "Really," Bondarchuk agrees. "It was not easy," the producer adds. "But it's a different system here, there's a lot more collaborative work. Actors like to work with Fedor because they feel protected."
"We are on the best of terms," Bondarchuk says now about his son. His head shaved, his dark eyes piercing, his voice deep and commanding, Bondarchuk is a formidable figure, one with the power to will a gigantic production like Stalingrad into being.