If you don’t speak Russian and you don’t speak German, you might want to think about taking a crash course in Rosetta Stone before watching Stalingrad out of concern that a subtitled film about an epic tale of love and war would be too much for the monolingual brain. And you would be right — but not for that reason. In fact, the meaning of Stalingrad for the people whose lives and family history it documents will never be fully understood by the casual moviegoer, and Stalingrad certainly does not attempt to facilitate that understanding.
After a meteoric rise to the most successful contemporary Russian film of all time, Stalingrad comes to American theaters starting today to provide a glimpse into the battle that turned the tide of World War II. The film, the first in Russia to be shot with IMAX 3D technology, recounts “a dramatic love story against the backdrop of a grand battle,” an ambitiously daunting task that does little justice to the love story and systematically fails to render an account of the bloodiest battle in human history.
This is evident from line one, as the film confusingly begins amidst the colossal relief effort following the 2011 tsunami in Japan (as if the story of one human disaster was not enough). In a hilariously contrived (yet deathly serious) scene, a Russian doctor comforts several German civilians (in Japan, remember) over a makeshift radio as they lie trapped underground. Telling them that he “had five fathers,” the doctor begins to recount the story of his Russian mother and the men that protected her during World War II.
As the Russian army mounts a failed assault from across the Volga river, a band of Russian officers under the command of Captain Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov) occupy a small house on the outskirts of the city. They find themselves surrounded by the German army and in the presence of Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), a Russian girl who is the only surviving member of her family, and refuses to leave her home despite it being on the front line. As the soldiers become more and more attached to Katya, she becomes their motivation to defend the building from the German army’s continued assaults.
The German officer (Thomas Kretschmann) in charge of taking back the house is deeply distracted by his own romantic attachment to Masha (Yanina Studilina), a Russian civilian. Though the film is unabashedly pro-Russian, the great irony is that Kretschmann not only turns in the best acting performance of the cast, but also grounds the film to its most tangible takeaway. Kretschmann’s slow descent into madness as everything is slowly stripped away from him is a pleasing contrast to the hopelessly confusing love affair between the Russians that is never fully resolved.
“Stalingrad” will be most remembered for its shocking battle reconstructions and eye-popping visual effects. The film makes use of more than 900 extras for some scenes, and each set was meticulously reproduced in St. Petersburg over the course of six months. The sequences involving plane crashes, hand-to-hand combat and a charging brigade of flaming Russian soldiers are worth the price of admission alone, even if the rest of the film’s dramatization falls largely flat. On a related note, the musical selection and sounds are some of the best of any battle movie and accompany each and every bloody battle scene with impressive gusto. Stalingrad is an action movie that attempts to adopt a non-action-based premise, but it is the intense action that provides the real strong point of the movie.
Stalingrad reflects Russian pride in a way that many American moviegoers will only obtain a very surface level understanding of — whether that’s the fault of the movie’s producers or American history books will remain an open question. It wants viewers to cheer for Russia, and potential moviegoers would do well to heed the films most profound line, shared with Katya by Gromov: “We will wait it all out, like we are floating on a cloud.” The film’s success depends on the ability of viewers to float on a cloud of ignorance and suspend historical context to wait out an improbable yet creatively constructed love story for the film’s 131 minute running time. If they can, given that suspending historical context is usually not difficult for American audiences, the film will bedazzle them.
As a redeeming quality, the film is not totally blind to the human costs of war. The depiction of a gross atrocity on the part of the German army in the plaza is as traumatic and well shot as any, and the conclusion serves as a stark awakening that remedies (albeit hastily) the overriding sense of melodrama that had previously hung over the plot. For these reasons, Stalingrad isn’t a bad movie — it is a misguided one informed by a distorted reading of history and an overly complex dramatic interpretation of a love story. These qualities don’t make it less enjoyable, but they do leave a sense of lost potential.