Back in the USSR
In the last years of his life, Sergio Leone longed to make a gigantic, probably unfilmable epic about the long, bloody siege of Stalingrad during World War II. It was to be a period piece even grander in scope than Leone’s own sublime four-hour epic Once Upon a Time in America, and he hoped to open the film with a half-hourlong tracking shot traversing the entire city in one unbroken take.
Director Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad is deliberately more limited in its scope than Leone’s foggy notion, and a long, satellite zoom-out near the end reminds us that it depicts only a minor skirmish in the midst of infinite carnage. But as the first Russian film shot in 3-D, the ambitions of Stalingrad are as mercenary as they are artistic. More than drawing inspiration from the cultural invasiveness of Hollywood’s bombast, Stalingrad wants to stand next to, and even surpass, their PG-13 thrills.
It succeeds in many ways, even if the “Burn in hell, scum!” rhetoric occasionally makes Stalingrad feel like a Russian-language reboot of Nation’s Pride, the propaganda film-within-a-film from Inglourious Basterds. However, unlike the American-produced propaganda purveyed by Michael Bay, Peter Berg and Roland Emmerich, Stalingrad hides a tender soul amid the omnipresent CGI and Gladiator-style fight scenes.
There is more of Paul Verhoeven’s cynical weirdness in Stalingrad than there is Zack Snyder’s slate-colored humorlessness. Bondarchuk and screenwriters Ilya Tilkin and Sergey Snezhkin even include a subplot suspiciously similar to the main story of Verhoeven’s underrated 2006 film Black Book. They also tend to emphasize moments of grace as much as they revel in cinematic slaughter—a makeshift birthday party with scavenged gifts that could have come from John Ford’s WWII-era film They Were Expendable.
Bondarchuk and cinematographer Maksim Osadchiy-Korytkovskiy’s images are viscerally beautiful right from the opening shots of an airplane descending into a Japanese city devastated by the 2011 tsunami. These powerful images set up a bold and bizarre framing device, as a faceless Russian aid worker tells the story of his mother’s life during the Stalingrad siege in order to soothe trapped German tourists.
After that striking pretitle sequence, the film flashes back to 1942 at the height of the Nazi siege. In a debt to Saving Private Ryan, Stalingrad starts with a massive, unimaginably bloody battle and gets increasingly insular and terrified in the aftermath. A group of Russian scouts are sent on a mission across the Volga River to prepare for a counteroffensive against the Nazis. When the plan fails, a handful of Russian soldiers hide out in an apartment, where they set up sniper rifles and try to protect the civilians.
From there, Stalingrad becomes an ensemble drama with flashes of violent action, as the Russian soldiers befriend a pretty survivor named Katya. She turns out to be the mother of the Russian aid worker and narrator from the opening, and one by one, we get insights into the prewar lives of each soldier. These scenes are sometimes moving but also overly contrived—for example, one of the soldiers was a successful tenor who now refuses to speak.
The Nazi leader is played by Thomas Kretschmann, best known for also playing a Nazi in films such as Downfall, Valkyrie, The Pianist, Eichmann and many other movies. It’s a strange lot to be typecast as a Nazi sadist, and perhaps the handsome and talented Kretschmann would rather be known for his Richard III than his Eichmann, but work is work. Whatever the case, Kretschmann is close to brilliant here as Kapitan Kan, finding deep-seated sinews of human longing and dementia in this pitiless scumbag, much like Michael Fassbender did in 12 Years a Slave.
It’s not a flawless picture, and is clearly stitched together from any number of more broad-shouldered influences. However, in addition to the solid action and serviceable drama, Stalingrad offers images of grisly awe (flame-covered Russian soldiers getting mowed down by machine-gun fire), sick humor (a fatally stabbed Nazi commander laments that the only thing he can feel are the lice in his armpits), doomed tenderness (the birthday-party scene) and some risky narrative leaps.