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New Release Review - Stalingrad

A group of Russian soldiers attempt to protect a teenage girl amid the carnage of the 1942 siege of Stalingrad.

Directed by: Fedor Bondarchuk
Starring: Thomas Kretschmann, Yanina Studilina, Philippe Reinhardt, Maria Smolnikova


Stalingrad, 1942. The city is under the control of the invading German army. To clear the way for a larger force, a group of Russian army scouts are sent across the Volga river. After enduring heavy casualties, a number of soldiers take post in a building, the only surviving resident of which is teenager Katya (Smolnikova), who the group swear to protect. Across the street, the Germans have taken command of another building where Officer Kahn (Kretschmann) has raised the ire of his superiors by falling for a Russian girl, Masha (Studilina).
Stalingrad, the first Russian movie shot in IMAX 3D, left me feeling somewhat culturally alienated. I enjoyed the film but I can't help feel that not being Russian means I could never truly appreciate it.
Fedor Bondarchuk's epic film is as troubling as it is exhilirating and its politics are decidedly dubious. When a mother and daughter are accused of being Jewish by a Nazi officer looking to make an example of someone, they plead with him that he's mistaken, that they're not actually Jewish. The officer ignores their pleading and they are burnt alive in the back of a truck. This is the only mention of Jews in the entire film and I'm not sure how we're supposed to read it. If the mother and daughter were indeed Jewish then it means they betrayed their culture to save themselves, not the most noble portrayal possible. If they weren't Jewish then you get the sense that the Jews are being blamed for Russia's trouble with Germany. Only viewing this with a Russian audience could clear up this troubling aspect.
Likewise the film's treatment of Masha, a beautiful young Russian woman keeping herself safe by sleeping with a Nazi officer. Personally, I found her a sympathetic and tragic character but I get the impression Bondarchuk wants us to see her as a villain. After all, she's betraying her people by sharing a Nazi's bed, but this contradicts the treatment of the "are they or aren't they?" Jews.
These troubling aspects aside, I found Stalingrad an engrossing old school war movie. The central premise owes a debt to John Ford's 1948 western 3 Godfathers, with a bunch of hardened soldiers turning all gooey as they protect a pretty young girl. This leads me, however, to something else that seems to have been lost in translation. The movie is narrated, rather bizarrely, by a rescue worker in modern day Japan, to a German woman trapped under rubble in the aftermath of a tsunami. He is the son of the young girl in question and describes her as having five "fathers", referring to the soldiers. But there are clearly six men looking after her. A mistake in subtitling? If so, a highly significant one.
While previous war movies have showed us both sides of the conflict, only 1970's American-Japanese co-production Tora! Tora! Tora! matches Stalingrad for its even-handedness. The scenes involving our Russian heroes are accompanied by inspirational, heroic string music. No surprise there, but this is also the case with the Germans, creating a strange dynamic. The movie's most stirring scene doesn't involve an act of courage by the Russians but rather a rousing speech by Kretschmann's Nazi officer to his beleaguered troops. Finding myself caught up in the German actor's great performance and the stirring soundtrack, I momentarily understood how an entire nation could have fallen for the lies of their leaders. Not a feeling I'm comfortable with but a testament to the power of well executed propaganda.
The central group of Russian soldiers, with one exception - a cold-blooded, slightly psychotic sniper, are a likable bunch and easy to root for. The actors are thoroughly convincing in their roles. In a fight between these guys and the pretty boy surf dudes of Lone Survivor, my money's on this lot every day. As much as I found myself rooting for the brave Russians, however, I was equally hoping Kretschmann and his lover would make it through this, creating a strangely unique dichotomy in terms of my confused allegiance.
I can't help but suspect I read Stalingrad in an altogether different manner than its makers intended but I thoroughly enjoyed it, though certain aspects left a troubling taste in my mouth.
8/10


Eric Hillis

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