Directed by Feder Bondarchuk
Starring Mariya Smolnikova, Yanina Studilina, Pyotr Fyodorov, Thomas Kretschmann, Sergey Bondarchuk, Dmitriy Lysenkov, Andrey Smolyakov, Aleksey Barabash, Oleg Volku
Russian, Action, War
131 Minutes


Stalingrad, Russia’s first foray into 3D fare, is not without its problems but nonetheless offers an entirely visceral and well-balanced, if a touch patriotic, view of the bloodiest war in human history. Rather than speak in terms of us versus them, Feder Bondarchuk‘s film looks beyond the stars and stripes (er, hammers and sickles) of nationality and into the souls of a band of warriors, harrowed and hopeful anew as they were. Our ragtag team of note is no glorified troop of super soldiers, just a collection of tramps culled from all walks of life, as flawed and yet human as the enemy Nazi.

Bondarchuk’s fair hand gives credence to both sides of the war effort, allowing us the chance to meet a Nazi antagonist, Kaptain Kan (Thomas Kretschmann), who’s not the familiar shade of Nazi (a.k.a. unscrupulous evil without bound). Kan is far more a person than he is a villain. He doesn’t have a red skull. He doesn’t love throwing out down the ol’ sieg heil. His pupils aren’t made up of little flames. It’s even hinted that he’s ashamed of his party affiliation. He’s a man at the end reaches of humanity, living out the end of days in a foreign country, waking to the cacophony of explosions and commanding a stockade of troops to take down an enemy fortification where our Russian heroes have holed up.

Offering a painterly depiction of the Russian’s landing at Stalingrad that matches, and even eclipses, the visceral horror of Steven Spielberg‘s famed Normany Beach scene, Bondarchuk’s 3D war-ravaged cinemascape presents a view of Earth splitting open and hell spilling out. The cinematography is crisp and diabolical; a bleak canvas of greys accented with the stark pops of flaming color. It’s intensely cinematic and arguably makes for some of the best war sequences this side of Saving Private Ryan.

The 3D aspect works aptly, especially for a nation’s first outing, but the more notable technical wonder comes in the whopping sound design. In the belly of the PACCAR IMAX theater, the theater roared, splitting our sense of orientation with a bombastic soundtrack of fire lapping and rifles burping. With the scope of these sequences what they are, if given a choice, preference IMAX over 3D. With most of these early proceedings cloaked in a torrent of fire (even the troops duke it out set aflame), you’ll believe the “bloodiest” bit of hyperbole that’s come to define this Russian vs. Nazi war field and seeing it unfold on the big screen is a must if you’re the least bit interested in this story.

But rather than weave the tale over the explosive turns of war or the dramatic camaraderie discovered in fox holes, the script, penned by Sergey Snezhkin and Ilya Tilkin, takes an unexpected detour to uncover a narrative where loyalty is not to country, but to new found loved ones. On both sides of the fence, they’ve hung their horses to figures of salvation, unveiled in the beauty and soulful fortitude of women, those motherly creatures left behind in the scramble of warfare.

To our Russian comrades, Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) is that maternal symbol of hope. To Kaptain Kan, it’s Masha (Yanina Studilina). Both women represent different sides of the same coin; one willing to endure at all costs, one too weak to take a stand. And though Masha’s eventual arc suggests a feverish descent into Stockholm Syndrome, both women form symbiotic relationships with their armed men. In a literal and eventually metaphorical sense, they keep each other alive; the men protect the women, the women preserve the men’s souls. These young women are the reminder of the good in the world; that which is worth saving. In this literal hellhole that rains ash like it’s Chernobyl or, dare I mention its name so soon, Pompeii, everyone needs a savior.

Since there’s no real central hero, save for maybe Pyotr Fyodorov‘s Kapitan Gromos, we get to know the Russian ensemble in fits and starts, often only slightly scratching the surface and yet getting just enough details in to care about them as characters. We know them mostly through their actions though and, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. But we’re never led to think of these men as infallible (except maybe Angel, he’s a pretty good dude). Rather, they’re normal men turned into machines of war. The product of man’s inclination towards warfare.

I’ll admit that it’s often more difficult to cross examine an actor’s performance in a foreign-language film and that’s somewhat the case here. Great work often transcends language but it’s hard for me to distinguish decent from dreadful. Admittedly not knowing Russian, I’d still be willing to put forth that these guys are all closer to the solid side of the fence. Still, having said that, it’s no actors showcase but neither will you be able to notice anything actively off about their thespian feats.

Having already caught a bit of early flack from critics stateside, I have a sneaking suspicion that one’s willingness to accept this will depend largely on demographics. Girls are somewhat more likely to fall for Stalingrad than your run-of-the-mill war movie since there’s such a strong female presence but I can’t help but feel that the normal military crowd that’s wont to fall for these kinds of movies will leave this one out of their rose ceremonies. (Ruskis and Nazis? and I don’t automatically hate all of them?!) Like Nazis, there’s a stigma built into our perception of Russians in cinema (particularly within this time period) so to sit on their side of the fence may prove too much a task for some. If you’re willing to turn the blinders off (or at least down) though, Stalingrad is an undeniably rock solid war film that aptly balances action set pieces with lofty drama.


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