Its US release coming on the heels of the just-wrapped Sochi Olympics, where Russia presented a noble image of itself for both domestic and international consumption, the Russian war film Stalingrad seeks to do much the same in cinematic terms.
It is yet another bloody war movie, this time about what is remembered as probably the single bloodiest battle in WWII, where in 1942 Russian and German forces faced off in a siege that pulverized the city. This battle has been told numerous times in other films, and Stalingrad itself is also inspired by Vasiliy Grossman's classic WWII novel Life and Fate.
The major selling point of this film is that it is Russia's very first IMAX 3D film, making the film an event, with all the ballyhooed hype that this entails. This translated to record-breaking box office both on its home turf and in China, where it set records as the highest-grossing non-US foreign film there. So in financial terms, at least, this is a crowning achievement for its director, Fedor Bondarchuk, also a popular actor and talk-show host, as well as the son of Sergei Bondarchuk, best known for the celebrated 1969 Russian-language version of War and Peace.
In artistic terms, unfortunately, Stalingrad is sorely lacking. It gives us a massive, and massively loud, spectacle of stereoscopic images and lots of bloody hand-to-hand battles. However, what it doesn't give us is any sort of depth of characterization or any attempt to offer narrative material that transcends rank clichés. Subtlety and originality are not this film's friends, by any means.
Stalingrad begins with a very odd narrative frame, set in present day Japan around the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Here, a Russian rescue team is trying to save a group of Germans trapped underneath the rubble of a collapsed building. An older man who is one of the rescue team members tries to distract the Germans from their precarious situation by telling the story of how he came to have five fathers. Relating a harrowing war tale would not seem to be the best way to keep people's spirits up in that situation, but maybe that's just me.
In any case, this launches us into the main narrative, in which the Germans have taken over most of the city, and the Russians seem to be hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. But does this stop these implacable warriors? Not in this scenario, which is designed (at least for Russian audiences) to pummel the viewer with patriotism.
Nowhere is this brought home in visual terms more than in an early scene of the film, in which the Germans set their stores of fuel in an attempt to arrest the progress of advancing Russian troops. But instead of being stopped, the Russians continue to attack, screaming and on fire. This is the film's single most memorable image, one made more intense by the 3D imagery, and one which the rest of the film can't hope to live up to. After this, unfortunately, Bondarchuk is content to settle for the jingoistic clichés that push domestic audiences' buttons and sells tons of tickets, but sacrifices true artistry in the process.
In any event, the plot concerns a house that has much strategic value to both sides of the battle, as it provides shelter and has a vantage point useful for sniper shooting. Most of the building's residents have cleared out, save for one: Katya (Mariya Smolnikova), a traumatized probable rape victim, yet a resourceful and plucky young woman holding on to her home for dear life, the deadly battle around her be damned. She becomes simultaneously a mascot, mother figure, combat trainee (she learns to sniper shoot Kraut baddies with the best of them), cheerleader, and potential lover for the soldiers.
This brings us to the "five fathers" mentioned in the framing story. They're the sort of character types you've seen in a million war pictures: the grizzled veteran, the young hotshot, the hard-as-nails commander with a soft side, etc. These characterizations are all so rote, standard, and generally unimaginative that they're barely worth mentioning, other than to say that one of these guys fathered the man telling the story today.
Meanwhile, on the German side, their efforts to completely occupy Stalingrad are hampered by the fact that Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann), one of their captains, doesn't have his head completely in the battle. This is because so much of his energy is occupied by his obsession with Masha (Yanina Studilina), a beautiful Russian woman who becomes his basically through rape, but whom he seems to have genuine affection for. This traps Masha in an untenable situation where she's victimized by both sides: she must depend on her captor for basic survival, while the Russians regard her as a traitor. Adding once again to the hoary archetypes that are Stalingrad's bread and butter, the characters of Katya and Masha form a very neat madonna/whore contrast.
In the end, it is this constant resorting to the most overworked archetypes and stereotypes that ultimately sink Stalingrad, its retrograde old-fashioned narrative constructs rendering its ultra-modern technological surfaces little more than marketing and mass-audience baiting gimmicks.
The film opens in North American cinemas on Friday, February 28.