When we were discussing Stalingrad, a friend referred to it as “Saving Comrade Katya.” To an extent, his comparison to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan works. Both are violent films set in turning points of World War II, both focus on a small group of soldiers, and both attempt to depict the war’s brutality while maintaining a sense of patriotism for their respective countries of origin. Saving Private Ryan, however, was often lauded for its realism, especially in its depiction of the invasion of Normandy that “feels like you’re really there.” Stalingrad makes no such attempt with the eponymous battle. During the elaborately choreographed combat against CGI green-screen sets shot in slow motion and high contrast, it’s difficult for viewers to imagine that the characters are really there, let alone that they themselves are. Visually, director Fedor Bondarchuk’s style is much more reminiscent of Zack Snyder’s (300, Sucker Punch) than Steven Spielberg’s.
It doesn’t start out like that, however. The film opens in the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and the depiction of the widespread destruction in Japan is, if anything, restrained. Sure, there’s fire and rubble and abundance of soot, but they’re all shot fairly naturally with more focus on the characters than the destruction, and none of their heroics or sufferings are terribly implausible. The main narrative comes from a Russian rescue worker, who tells a story to a group of trapped German women while they wait for help. (The appropriateness of a story in which the heroes make liberal use of anti-German slurs and die in a collapsing city is left unquestioned.) The story comes second-hand. The narrator doesn’t have a deep personal connection to the Battle of Stalingrad, aside from having been conceived during it, making him a rather baffling choice of character to bring this story to life. Just a generation removed from it, he speaks of the battle as though it was a distant legend, and the hyper-stylized visuals incongruous with the framing device add to that impression, as do the many events depicted to which there wouldn’t have been any surviving witnesses. Perhaps there’s some promise in this, showing how history is mythologized and exploring the meaning and importance of these myths. But whatever potential is there, Stalingrad fails to meet it.
The main story is focused on a group of five soldiers trying to hold down a strategically important apartment complex and the narrator’s mother Katya (Maria Smolnikova), a young woman who’s been living there. The only Russian soldier with an especially memorable personality is Chvanov (Dmitriy Lysenkov), a sniper with a macabre sense of humor and an exceptional disregard for the value of human life. The rest are largely interchangeable. All of them develop fondness for Katya, and when Askakhov (Sergey Bodarchuk, Jr.) romances and eventually beds her, it’s easy to forget which one he is. All the character interactions seem like thin pretenses to lead to the lavishly crafted battle sequences. During these, the narrator tells the characters’ backstories in voice-over, with enough titillating visuals to keep the audience from getting too bored with details about the film’s protagonists. These make extensive use of slow motion and bullet time, letting the viewers absorb every single detail of every building crumbling, every Nazi dying, and every runtime-padding explosion, and every man, woman and child burning alive, in IMAX where available.
In fairness, only two scenes in the film depict burning alive in detail. The first occurs near the beginning, when a group of Russian soldiers is set ablaze and proceeds to successfully assault a German fortification. The second occurs when Oberstleutnant Henze (Heiner Lauterbach), a cartoonishly despicable German officer, holds an arbitrary auto-de-fé for a civilian woman and her daughter. The girl cries and the woman begs for her daughter’s freedom. Chvanov shoots them both, seeking to save them from the same pain his comrades had endured so shockingly well a few days earlier. The two scenes effectively rob each other of any inspirational quality or poignancy. The fantastical heroics seem all the more ludicrous, and the brutality, suffering and ethical dilemmas seem pointlessly morbid. All that can be drawn from all the fiery carnage is that the Russians are good and the Germans are bad. This confusion in theme leads to a curious consistency in tone, as indulgence and dreariness both run thick throughout the war narrative, especially the primary subplot: a more perverse sort of love story between the traumatized German war hero Captain Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) and a Russian woman named Masha (Yanina Studilina) who resembles his late wife and is willing to play along to survive. To his credit, Kretchsmann (who also starred in the 1993 German film of the same title) gives a character who could have been as simple as his child-burning superior officer the film’s most compelling performance. Unfortunately, it’s overwhelmed by the nauseating 300-meets-Schindler’s List aesthetic, which reaches its nadir when Kahn rips off Masha’s clothing in slow motion before raping her. While Stalingrad falls short in conveying the experience of soldiers or civilians in war, it decently approximates that of eating an oversized hot fudge sundae at a wake.
When the war stories come to a close and the German girls are free, the narrator says that, thanks to the soldiers who fought in Stalingrad, he “has no idea what war is like.” Perhaps this was a rote expression of patriotic gratitude, a careless ending to a largely careless film. Perhaps it’s a monument toward a larger ambition, pointing towards an exploration of how postwar generations remember a World War II that didn’t actually happen in the two hours preceding. Or perhaps it’s a moment of sudden and audacious self-awareness, an acknowledgement that the film couldn’t have told its own story properly, a statement of its most fundamental flaw with no apologetic for it. Whatever the intention was, the closing voiceover feels like an insult after the injury of watching such an ugly film.