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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

Stalingrad review: life among the ruins

by MaryAnn Johanson

Stalingrad yellow light Pyotr Fyodorov Mariya Smolnikova

Russia’s first 3D IMAX spectacle is visually intense — it’s set during “bloodiest battle in human history,” after all — but I never warmed to a story meant to be about human resilience.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It was Russia’s entry to the Oscars in the Foreign Language category (it wasn’t nominated). It’s the first Russian film shot in 3D IMAX. And it’s the highest-grossing Russian film ever at the Russian box office. I guess the Russians saw something in Stalingrad that eludes me.

Certainly, this is a visually intense film, from horrific combat sequences featuring things you won’t be able to unsee — in 3D IMAX! — to dismal vistas of a city ravaged by the “bloodiest battle in human history”; I was struck by one poignant moment when I couldn’t tell if what was falling from the sky in the gray urban landscape was snow, come to freeze out desperate refugees, or ash from a city on fire. But I never warmed up to the characters in a story that is intended to be all about human resilience in the face of extreme hardship.

It’s autumn 1942, and a small band of Russian soldiers — survivors of an all-out assault on the city, which is held by the Nazis — is holed up in a partially bombed-out apartment building. It’s unclear what their strategy might be, for the city is in utter ruins around them, now more graveyard than battlefield, or what they’re waiting for; reinforcements seem unlikely to show up, and even if they did, then what? It’s also unclear whether this lack of apparent purpose should be taken as a sort of mass delusion on the part of the soldiers, if perhaps they’re all just clinging to their soldierly work as the only thing left to them.

There’s meant to be something touching in how they all take to the young woman still living in the building: Katya (Mariya Smolnikova) refuses to leave her home, despite the near-unlivable state of it, and despite the Nazi HQ across the square. As the soldiers alternate between flirting with her (which she shrugs off), being overprotective of her (she’s 18 but looks about 12, and seems frail despite her obvious toughness in surviving), and teaching her how to shoot (she’s a quick learner), their leader, Captain Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov: The Darkest Hour), plots ways to kill Germans, including a nasty officer (Thomas Kretschmann [Valkyrie, Wanted], the only face that may be familiar to Western audiences). But their situation feels forced, not organic; they feel thrown together not by fate but by screenwriters — Sergey Snezhkin and Ilya Tilkin — constructing a story.

Snatches of the story will stick with you, from across a wide spectrum of the Things That People Do, from wonderful to terrible. There’s the surprise for Katya’s birthday that the soldiers plan. And there’s the Nazi “sacrifice” of a Russian woman and child perceived to be Jewish. But director Fedor Bondarchuk can’t quit make Stalingrad hang together. The unsatisfying coldness of the tale is underscored by the rather pointless narration, as we are told this story in the present day by a Russian volunteer doctor at an earthquake disaster site in Japan: he is telling the story — Katya was his mother — to a group of German tourist teenagers trapped in the rubble to pass the time while they wait for some heavy equipment to dig them out. It’s one thing that the unnamed narrator relates some events that he cannot possibly know about. It’s quite another that he is telling a bunch of already scared and traumatized German kids about Nazi atrocities. That just seems cruel.

Stalingrad (2014)
US/Canada release date: Feb 28 2014 | UK release date: Feb 21 2014

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated NIHTG (Nazis: I hate these guys)
MPAA: rated R for sequences of war violence
BBFC: rated 15 (contains strong battle violence)

viewed in 3D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • David_Conner

    If you want to see a movie about Stalingrad that’s actually good, I highly recommend the 1993 German film (also titled, simply, Stalingrad).

  • Coincidentally, Thomas Kretschmann is also in that one.

    I kinda like *Enemy at the Gates,* even if it is a bit Hollywoodized.

  • David_Conner

    I like *Enemy at the Gates* a lot myself, but to be fair, it’s only a Hollywoodized version of a story that had already been thoroughly… Moskvized? It turns out that, for several reasons, it’s highly unlikely that the “real life” source story is true:


  • Karl Morton IV

    Wikipedia tells me that Fedor Bondarchuk’s dad was the great Sergei Bondarchuk who, even if his post-Soviet career was somewhat spotty, made perhaps the film epic of all film epics in the four part version of “War and Peace” which I cannot recommend highly enough. Seriously, check it out – in the Russian version, not the dubbed version.

    Maybe Fedor has a thing or two to learn, but it seems obvious from MaryAnn’s account of “Stalingrad” that he is working under his father’s shadow – which can’t be easy.

    Did I mention that “War and Peace” is awesome?

  • I know next to nothing about Soviet/Russian film. Thanks for the tip!

  • RogerBW

    Shame, it looked promising. I guess nobody wants to do a war film that looks like a film that’s already been made, and — I’m not an expert, but I imagine there are just a few Soviet-era conventional propaganda films about the siege of Stalingrad.

  • Joe Schmoe

    How was “Enemy at the Gates” Hollywood when it was a British German and Russian production? The only American actor they had was Ed Harris. But that was a 1000x better than this bombastic Russian propaganda stinker

  • Joe Schmoe

    God what a load of bombastic propaganda tripe, the war has been over 70 years. You’d think they can do better than the cruel German robot soldier stereotype? Not that they weren’t bastards in general but they all weren’t monsters.

  • Paramount was also a producer, which makes the film definitely a product of Hollywood. And Jude Law and Rachel Weisz are certainly Hollywood stars.

  • Joe Schmoe

    Jude Law and Rachel Weisz are certainly English movie stars and the movie wasn’t even made in America. Even the director and writers were French. So to go on like this was some Hollywood back lot production is a bit disigenuous

  • LaSargenta

    “Hollywoodized” is not the same as “Hollywood back lot production”. Former is an aesthetic, which I don’t think is out of line.

    I liked Enemy at the Gates, but it was a bit Hollywoodized.

  • Joe Schmoe

    Considering all the principles involved in that movie are not even American, saying Enemy is Hollywoodized is misleading to the point of dishonesty. This Russian stinker is more Hollywood than Enemy. Enemy at least showed the Soviets were just as bad, if not worse that the Nazis for shooting their own men for what some murderously evil kommisars perceived as cowardice. Years ago I got into lengthy arguments with both Russians and Germans who were still in denial about their respective countries’ barbaric behavior in WW ll, and all they could repeat about Enemy was Hollywood, America, Jews yadda yadda. Yeah, the Jews murdered the Jews in cold blood en masse Russia, the Hollywood people shot their own soldiers dead for mindlessly trifling offenses in Russia during WW ll or Red Army men raping German women in 1945 was evil but he 20 million Russian civvies & POWs murdered by the Germans previously was just propaganda or collateral damage

  • Hollywood films are made by creatives from all over the world, and shot all over the world. “Hollywood” is about a certain attitude that comes from American corporate money backing a film.

  • Joe Schmoe

    Hollywood or not, Enemy was a much better movie than this load of CGI bombast, which has more in common with ‘300’ or the new Frankenstein movie than any normal war picture.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I hear the book it’s based on is pretty good too. :)

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