There’s something fascinating about movies set during wartime. Some of the best movies ever made are set during war, often World War II. The most recent American film related to WWII, however, was the slick but lackluster The Monuments Men [see my review of The Monuments Men]. War isn’t pretty, though, which is why the films, like Saving Private Ryan, Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, are gripping, anxiety-provoking and even frightening to watch.
Add the new Russian-language release Stalingrad (known in Russian as Сталинград) to this list. It takes place during the middle of the bloodiest battle in human history, the occupation of Stalingrad by the Germany army mid-way through WWII. As with all great war films, it starts out large, with thousands of Russian troops crossing the Volga river to try and retake their city then focuses on a very small group of people trying to make sense of their experience and the senselessness of battle.
The film starts during rescue efforts post-tsunami in modern-day Japan, with a mysterious Russian man telling a trapped young woman that he had five fathers. Five? How can that be? The main story takes place during the historic 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, and it’s his mother Katya (Maria Smolnikova) who met and befriended a small group of Russian soldiers during the battle.
The Russians desperately trying to cross the Volga so they can sneak into the city and commandeer the oil and gas reserves. But the Germans hold their hard won territory with a furious intensity and at great cost in a sweeping battle sequence reminiscent of the extraordinary landing on Normandy Beach in Saving Private Ryan. A small group of Russians led by Kapitan Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) survive the crossing and claim a strategically positioned, half-destroyed building on the edge of the city.
Living in the building is Katya, a 19yo Russian girl who has watched her entire family, her friends, and everyone in her apartment building killed by the intense bombing of the Luftwaffe and subsequent German ground attacks. Initially suspicious, she gradually befriends the Russian men, all of whom are lonely, exhausted and desperate for anything other than the dirt and chaos of the war. They take her under their wing and one young soldier falls for her, in a fairly predictable romantic element to the film.
Meanwhile, another group of Stalingrad natives live in the bombed-out basement of a building closer to the German HQ, with pretty blonde Masha (Yanina Studilina) surviving the war by selling what she has: herself. German officer Peter Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) forces himself on her but eventually falls in love with her, even as her fellow Russian survivors spit on her, call her unflattering names and steal the food Kahn uses to pay her.
The Germans must take the building that the Russians hold, but the Russians are determined to hold it regardless of the cost, regardless of whether they all die in the process. The German HQ and the Russian occupied building face each other across a city square, and each takes potshots at the other.
There’s a parallel story between Katya and Masha: each is doing what they must do to survive, ignoring the morality of their position in the zeal to survive. What would you do with an occupying force clearly ready and willing to use deadly force purely on a whim?
Stalingrad is a powerful movie that develops all these story lines simultaneously, offering us a range of Russian soldiers who are noble or cowardly depending on their personalities, along with Germans who question the morality of their own wartime efforts.
In a particularly powerful scene, the German commander decides to use psychological warfare against the Russians by rounding up the locals to execute them in the public square. When the commander recognizes a woman as Jewish, he orders his men to lock her and her child in a bus, then set them on fire “as a sacrifice before we attack, like in the old days.” This is so shocking that German officer Kahn screams at his commander, trying to stop the execution, even at the cost of his own honor and, possibly, his own life.
The production value is top-notch, and the 3D version I saw added another level of verisimilitude, with its omnipresent ashes from explosions and bombings. Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, Stalingrad is the first Russian movie shot completely in 3D IMAX, and is reputed to also be the most successful of any Russian-made movie.
There are some clichés that sneak in, to be fair, and a tinge of Russian patriotism (particularly in the last few historical scenes) that landed a bit flat for this American, but if you want to see one of the strongest, most powerful war films released in the last few years, rush to catch Stalingrad before it vanishes from theaters.