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” (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.