Sifting through the various layers of “Stalingrad” can be difficult. The Russian war drama from director Fedor Bondarchuk is one of the most visually stunning war pictures you will ever see and there are several interesting and compelling narrative choices. At the same time it struggles with a bit of an identity crisis. It can be hard to determine what kind of movie “Stalingrad” wants to be. This and other story concerns have made it tough for some critics to fully embrace the film.
Me, I didn’t struggle with the story Ike some did. Shortcomings become obvious as the film moves along, but I was never pulled out of the story by them. Still I would be interested to see this film as it was originally meant to be. Ilya Tilkin wrote the original script and heavily based his vision on museum archives, personal diaries of those who were there, and other historical documents. Just days before filming was to begin Bondarchuk and screenwriter Sergey Snezhkin made major changes to the story. This could be why the movie feels a bit scattered and unfocused.
The film opens in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami which devastated Japan. A Russian rescue worker attempts to calm trapped survivors by telling them the story of his mother and his five fathers. The story shifts to 1942 and The Battle of Stalingrad which has been referred to as the bloodiest battle in history. It was a turning point in World War II, but at the end of the conflict nearly 2 million Allied soldiers, Axis soldiers, and civilians were dead.
The story sets us down in the early stages of the five month battle where a handful of Russian soldiers seek refuge in a large five story apartment building. The soldiers were part of a bigger Russian force attempting to cross the Volga River but were scattered by a firey German ambush. Based loosely of the famous Pavlov’s House, the film focuses on five soldiers who lead the small force holed up in the building. With limited supplies and weapons they fortify the building to the best of their ability in hopes of holding out until reinforcements arrive.
Adding to the drama is the presence of a 19-year old girl named Katya (Maria Smolnikova) they find holed up in the building. It’s her home and she refused to leave after her family was killed. One of the film’s central storylines involves the five soldiers (or the five fathers from the rescue worker’s story) and the relationship they form with Katya. The leader of the soldiers Captain Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) is frustrated with Katya’s stubbornness fearing that his men are no longer fighting for country but for her. It’s a really interesting angle but it’s also one part of the story that contribute to the film’s somewhat murky identity.
We also follow a decorated German officer named Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann) who is tasked with clearing the Russian soldiers out of the building. Kahn has grown frustrated with the war and with his badgering superior Colonel Henze (Heiner Lauterbach). Kahn becomes infatuated with a local Russian woman, much to the chagrin of Henze. Their complicated and uncomfortable relationship plays into the main story but it’s another story angle that contributes to the film’s identity issues.
While the various story threads may not harmoniously fit, it isn’t because any of them are bad. In fact they all offer some compelling drama. And that includes the incredible action sequences. “Stalingrad” has some of the most vividly arresting war sequences you will ever see on film. The visuals are a key component to the film. It’s the first Russian movie shot in IMAX and millions of dollars went into recreating the locations. The mind-blowing detail shows itself in every background, in every setting, and in every shot. And the war violence has an almost operatic quality to it. It’s intense and often brutal but never gratuitous.
“Stalingrad” has received various criticisms. In Russia some critics criticized for its lack of patriotic focus. In other areas critics felt it was too biased in its perspective. I don’t care to get into political criticisms. I look on it as a story that I really latched on to. It is a bit sentimental. It does lean heavily on its special effects. There are moments that feel a bit contrived. Still I found it to be a grand and ambitious production filled with great performances, intensely satisfying visuals, stylish action sequences, and sporadic yet compelling stories. Maybe “Stalingrad” is a flawed movie, but I appreciate any movie that sweeps me away like it did.
VERDICT – 4 STARS