Stalingrad: Rome Review

Hard-driving special effects turn an old-fashioned WWII war story into an epic catastrophe film.

Director Fedor Bondarchuk tackles the bloodiest battle of World War II in Russia's first 3D IMAX film.

Fedor Bondarchuk is hardly the first director to bring the legendary battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest confrontations in World War II and a turning point in the war, to the screen. Stalingrad in 3D is, however, the most ambitious production to tackle the subject. The first Russian film to be entirely shot in 3D and released in the 3D IMAX format, it is a strange cross-breed between an old-fashioned WWII epic full of genre cliches and a modern update whose meticulous historical recreation is frighteningly real. The cross-over potential of this spectacular-looking $30 million piece of entertainment was seen in China, where it soared to rank as the highest-grossing non-U.S. foreign film in its first week of release.   

And while it can’t remotely compare to the depths of sober understanding conveyed by the great Soviet-era classics on the war, which count masterpieces like Elem Klimov’s Come and See and Aleksei German’s Twenty Days Without War, its astute use of a modern deep-focus, 3D idiom creates the engrossing immediacy of a large-scale disaster film. In Russia, where it was released last month to record grosses approaching $50 million, it has raised controversy over what is perceived as its overly positive depiction of the Germans (owing to German actor Thomas Kretschmann’s sympathetic portrayal of an aristocratic officer disgusted by the atrocity of war) and historical inaccuracies. But this hasn’t prevented it from being named Russia’s entry in the foreign language Oscar race. 

It’s probably no accident that the screenplay puts forward a positive German counterweight to the Russian soldiers who are the true heroes. The story is book-ended by contemporary scenes that at first seem aimed at putting the immense tragedy of Stalingrad, where more than 1.2 million people died, into a modern perspective (the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami caused some 20,000 casualties.) The setting is Fukushima right after the disaster where (somewhat curiously, given that we’re in Japan) a team of Russian rescue workers fights to extract five German children from under the rubble of a building. One rescuer speaks German: It’s the film’s narrator, who distracts the kids by telling them the terrifying story of Stalingrad while they are being dug out (perhaps not the happiest of choices). This is a further hint that, 70 years after the battle, the film suggests it’s time to bury animosities. Along the same non-partisan lines, the word “Hitler” is heard only once in a pep-talk given by Kahn to his men; in the same shot, a giant bas-relief of Stalin appears in the film’s single mention.

The fine opening CG sequence of shiny plane flying against a huge sun ball, as composer Angelo Badalamenti fires the opening salvos of his stirring and ever-present orchestral score, could almost be a salute to Japanese animator Miyazaki. But as soon as the camera hits the ground in Fukushima, the catastrophe scene becomes gritty and hyper-real. From there it’s an easy jump to the mega-disaster of 1942 Stalingrad. The story begins in the middle of the six-month siege of the city by the German army that ultimately ended in a Russian victory, turning the tide of WWII in favor of the Allies.

The glow of fires and bombing is first glimpsed on the horizon across the Volga River, which the Russian army is attempting to cross to defend the occupied city. Or what is left of Stalingrad, because it has already been reduced to ashes and rubble. German officer Peter Kahn (Kretschmann) sees them coming and orders the army’s fuel supplies to be blown up in a monstrously spectacular scene, perhaps the film’s most memorable. Even while they’re burning alive, the Russian soldiers fight on and attack the German trenches like maddened ghosts on fire, unkillable and unstoppable. It’s a cruel but highly effective vision of self-sacrifice beyond all limits.

The intense fighting, shooting and hand-to-hand combat end with a handful of Russian soldiers from different divisions taking shelter in a multi-storied house in the center of town, modeled after the famous Pavlov house, which really existed. There they find an 18-year-old Russian girl huddled fearfully in a corner. Katia (Mariya Smolnikova) is the only member of her family to survive the German army's occupation of their family home. Lead by young Captain Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov), the soldiers adopt her as a sort of mascot, complicated by their desire for her and finally their respect for her courage and tenacity. Radio operator Sergey (Sergei Bondarchuk Jr.) develops a romantic crush, but he is kept at bay by his comrades.

Meanwhile, the evil German commander orders Kahn to take back control of the house, where a Russian marksman (Dmitriy Lysenkov) is picking off his men from the top floor. Though outnumbered, the Russians fight off the attack by covering themselves in blood and playing dead. When the Germans storm the house, they engage them in fierce hand-to-hand combat in scenes shot fast and loose and edited with a bit of unobtrusive stop-motion in a nod to martial arts films.

In addition to failing his mission, Kahn is in trouble with his commander for another reason: He has been caught in bed with a beautiful local girl, Masha (Yana Studilina). Their doomed love story forms a trite counterpoint to the chaste ambiguity of Katia and her soldier-protectors. With all the action unfolding in a few weeks, neither romance seems plausible beyond a conventional movie level.

Ilya Tilkin and Sergei Snezhkin’s screenplay might not shine for originality, but it has a sense of grueling realism. It is based on various chapters from epic novel Life and Fate by the once-banned Soviet writer Vasily Grossman, who wrote eye-witness accounts from the front line as a war correspondent. With this kind of support, a more resonant tale should have emerged with characters one could care about. But since everyone has the mark of death on their forehead from the beginning, it’s just a question of seeing how long they can hold out and how nobly they can die.

Veteran actor-director Bondarchuk (the son of actor-director Sergei Bondarchuk of War and Peace fame) spends most of his energy on orchestrating the complex crowd and combat scenes, which include rumbling tanks and crashing airplanes. Like his 2005 blockbuster about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, The 9th Company, it’s the kind of ballsy filmmaking that communicates directly with audiences, even if it has little new to add to the genre beyond bigger and better special effects.

Romantically handsome and commanding, Kretschmann must have been an easy piece of casting as he already starred as an Wehrmacht officer in a 1993 German film also called Stalingrad. Though his role has limited scope, he makes his mark through passive frustration, most notably in a tense scene where he helplessly watches as his commander burns a woman and child alive.

The Russian soldiers are well defined and realistically portrayed, but more team players than individual heroes. In the two female roles, the plain but spunky survivor Smolnikova and the sullen victim Studilina suggest in their different ways the world of tenderness and love that all good soldiers long for.

Production designer Sergey Ivanov creates some stunning sets, particularly the ruined city square where a fountain of children playing has been decapitated by shells, yet still stands in the midst of ashes and piles of corpses. The empty windows and doors give D.O.P. Maxim Osadchiy opportunities for fantastic deep-focus shots with the wounded city in the background.

The English subtitles on the print screened at the Rome Film Festival (out of competition) often verged on the incomprehensible.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (out of competition), Nov. 10, 2013.
A Sony Pictures release of a Non-Stop Production, Art Pictures Studio production in association with Twin Media, Russia 1 TV
Cast: Pyotr Fyodorov, Thomas Kretschmann, Sergei Bondarchuk Jr., Mariya Smolnikova, Yana Studilina, Andrey Smolyakov, Dmitriy Lysenkov, Alexey Barabash, Oleg Volku, Polina Rainkina, Anna von Abler, Yuriy Vladimirovich Nazarov
Director: Fedor Bondarchuk
Screenwriters: Ilya Tilkin, Sergei Snezhkin based on a novel by Vasily Grossman
Producers: Alexander Rodnyansky, Sergey Melkumov, Dmitry Rudovsky, Anton Zlatopolskiy

Executive producer: Natalia Gorina
Director of photography: Maxim Osadchiy
Production designer: Sergey Ivanov
Costumes: Tatiana Patrakhaltseva
3D Image producers: Steve Schklair, Rauf Atamalibekov

Chief editor: Natalia Gorina
Film editor: Igor Litoninskiy
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
No rating, 131 minutes