While it may be impossible, for the moment, to banish images of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing brinksmanship with Ukraine and the myriad pufferies and propagandistic Russian strategizing of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Stalingrad deserves to be more than a footnote in post-Soviet-era filmmaking. Its depiction of the Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted from August 1942 to February ‘43 and was a key turning point for the Allies (of which the Soviet Union, lest we forget, was one) as well as a spirit-crushing defeat for the Nazis, is executed with visually jaw-dropping depictions of valor, squalor, doom, and denial – not to mention a keenly mournful loss of innocence. This film’s humanistic subplots bring to mind both Saving Private Ryan and the unfairly forgotten 1970 gem Kelly’s Heroes, but to be fair, Bondarchuk’s film is very much its own, unique tale. (Although like Spielberg’s take on the darkest aspects of World War II, Stalingrad is bookended by the narration of one of the latter-day progeny of the stricken, titular city; flashbacks ensue.) Russian patriotism and military pride hold sway in Bondarchuk’s IMAX 3-D apocalypse, but so, too, does a cordite-scented romance, sacred remembrance, and the lessons (un-)learned upon the corpses of millions.
Unlike Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1993 film of the same name, this version of the Battle of Stalingrad does not limit itself to a single Russian battalion. Partly due to the improvements in CGI and digital filmmaking, Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad is likely to make you cough from the general air of shattered, smoking rubble and the flaming Soviet brigades that rush headlong – their uniforms transformed into a single conflagration – into enemy fire. As noted, this is something of a romance: Smolnikova plays the trapped civilian Katya, pinned down by German fire in a smoldering ruin alongside Kapitan Gromov’s (Fyodorov) comrades, among them Kapitan Kahn (Kretschmann), who finds an early, equally sexualized interest in the sturdy Masha (Studilina). On the other, even nastier side of the block – and the Battle for Stalingrad truly was fought block for deadly block, brick by pockmarked brick, with unknowable numbers of dead by the time the Nazis realized their blunder – is Lauterbach’s Col. Khenze, a preening Nazi with a taste for Soviet female flesh and other, marginally less seedy, pastimes. The grimier aspects of the rape/slaughter/camaraderie of the citywide conflict is rarely ignored here.
All of this gritty, gutter-bound doom, and bullet-and-Panzer-riddled history is scored to fine effect by Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks, The City of Lost Children). It’s certainly a more nationalistic take on this famous butchery of a battle, but one that’s every bit as relevant – certainly today – as any other. (3-D explode-a-thons included.)