In Soviet Russia, movie review YOU – but since we’re here in the good ol’ US of A, I’ll be the one determining if Stalingrad is Russia’s spiritual equivalent to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Credit director Fedor Bondarchuk with creating the first Russian film to be shot in 3D and IMAX 3D, as his efforts translated into the highest grossing box-office numbers in Russian history, but leave it to an American film critic to determine if Fedor actually did right by the Motherland. Come comrades, grab your sickle and your finest bottle of Popov – we’ve got a two hour Russian war epic to discuss that’s full of explosions, emotions, gunfire and heartbreak. Love and war are synonymous, no?
The battle of Stalingrad – a bloody, sacrificial battle during World War II that pitted a stubborn Adolf Hilter against a heroic Russian army refusing to budge. After countless months of fighting, the Axis forces were defeated by Russia’s strong-willed soldiers, in what would go down as one of history’s bloodiest, most ruthless battles. So where does the movie fit in? We follow five soldiers stranded during a Russian attack, as the survivors are forced into an abandoned building across from a German-occupied structure. As more Russian survivors make their way into the building, our Soviet brothers fortify their position, fighting off waves of Nazis led by Hauptmann Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann). During the battle, Stalingrad’s civilians refuse to leave their home, and among the Russian soldiers is a young woman who aids any way she can, bringing light into the darkest times of war. Outnumbered, outgunned, and overmatched, we watch our Russian soldiers fight for their country, serving with honor, bravery and absolutely no fear.
Evaluating Stalingrad on nothing but atmospheric scope, Fedor Bondarchuk creates a desolate, war-torn wasteland full of piles of rubble, deconstructed buildings, grimy soldiers and a truly epic scale that reconstructs Russia’s fabled battle with explosive intensity, enveloping viewers in the grand nature of war. Coming along with the stigma of 3D, Bondarchuk avoids mistakes made by movies like The Legend Of Hercules, utilizing IMAX’s technology to create vibrant, eye-popping visuals that barely even try any three dimensional gimmicks. Fedor creates beauty out of death and destruction, much like some of the best American war classics are able to accomplish. No gimmicks, no frills, just Russian patriotism and a bloody fight for survival – a sentiment that’s universal.
While most blockbuster war films tend to sport lengthy run times, a movie’s worth is measured by how long it actually feels. Two hours and ten minutes presents quite the marathon task, but Saving Private Ryan approached the three hour mark and it’s considered a modern day classic, so maybe time isn’t a factor? My numb butt disagrees.
Stalingrad isn’t an all out Soviet/Nazi brawl. One of the saddest parts of the real event is that so many civilian lives were lost, caught in the crossfire of World War II. The Russian citizens refused to leave their homes behind, yet couldn’t stay protected from stray gunfire and ongoing explosions. Everyday people were forced to live in an active warzone, and Bondarchuk’s film weaves a romantic tale around two female subjects struggling to survive by any means necessary. One becomes Hauptmann Kahn’s lover, shunned by all, while the other shacks up with our Russian heroes, keeping the men momentarily sane.
One side sweet, the other submissive, Stalingrad becomes bogged down by emotional fare that clouds the minds of our military men – even high ranking officials. It’s not that Masha (Yanina Studilina) and Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) are wasteful characters, but writers Sergey Snezhkin and Ilya Tilkin attempt to tug at our heartstrings while simultaneously blowing them to smithereens, a confusing balance that never exactly lights our love fuse. Stalingrad struggles to justify an over two hour run time through plodding romantics and overly-dramatized relationships, trying too hard to establish human emotion in the face of violence, blood, and all of war’s most horrifying aspects.
Stalingrad is relentless warfare on a massive scale, transporting viewers into the heart of World War II Russia – watered down by two polar opposite love stories thrown in to spice up moments of human drama. Vastly overwhelmed soldiers somehow fighting off heavily armed Nazi attackers doesn’t present enough drama? There’s a rich historical story here worth the watch, one that presents a spectacular visual journey, but Bondarchuk’s film unfortunately tries to do it all – and the romantic shortcomings are bullishly outweighed by much more favorable moments surrounding Stalingrad’s dark history.
Stalingrad wages a hard-fought battle to win over viewers, and while success is achieved, it could have done without some of the heavier romantic overtones.