Russia has a long history of filmmaking, dating all the way back to 1920’s The Battleship Potempkin, and recently a lot of interesting talent and titles have been making their way into Western multiplexes, such as the films of Timur Bekmambetov. Now with Stalingrad being released in IMAX 3D, this is the big hope for Russian cinema to really become a global phenomena. Unfortunately, all this film proves in the end is that Russia is just as capable of making big, empty headed and slightly offensive action fare as the worst of Hollywood.
In the wake of the Japanese Tsumami, a rescue worker tells a group of trapped German students a tale of how his mother (Mariya Smolnikova) survived the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad. In that battle she was left behind in her home as the Germans reduced the city to rubble around her. But that home soon became occupied by a group of Russian soldiers, who used the house as it was a vital strategic point for defending the arrival of their reinforcements across the Volga River. This was something the Germans realised though, and one determined Captain (Thomas Kretschmann) was charged with retaking the building… but he had his own concerns.
In much of the publicity for this film, director Fyodor Bondarchuk talks about being influenced by the filming style of Zack Snyder. One can easily realise this watching the film, as the 300 style speed-up then slow-down thing is used in almost every single action scene. It would be no joke to say that if all the slow-mo bits were in real time the film would be at least 25% shorter. A lot of the combat scenes also feel like 300 in their choreography, only with the fighters fully clothed. Now while this not only looks a bit silly, it’s part of a bigger problem.
These techniques are the visual vocabulary of action movies, not war movies. Scenes of characters fighting like this are there mainly to make the combatants look cool and badass. What a war movie, especially one based on a real battle, should never ever do is make the audience think a battle is cool. Now there is an argument that this is supposed to be honouring the memory of these soldiers, and the film goes to great lengths to emphasise that, however, this is a rather tasteless way of going about it.
Saving Private Ryan, for example, honoured its war heroes by showing them as normal men going through hell, scared but doing what they have to do anyway, not superhuman tough guys pulling off bullet-time moves (no, really, there are bullet-time moments in there!). What’s more, given that the script is so solemn and serious about the whole thing, there are some major tonal dissonances at work here. There’s a scene, where a large force of Russian troops are still running at German lines despite being on fire, that leaves you unsure whether you’re supposed to be horrified, cheering their accomplishment, laughing at how un-ironically over the top it is or what?!
That’s just one of this film’s flaws. The characters are really bland and stock for the most part: the commander with the permanent face like a smacked bottom, the twitchy little git sniper, the quiet sensitive one you know is going to have an emotional moment later on. The attempt to make the main German officer sympathetic, through his relationship with a Russian woman (Yanina Studilina), is deeply problematic to say the least. The framing device of the story being told at the site of the Japanese Tsunami is not only completely superfluous and a bit exploitative, but also adds in some really intrusive narration. Often repeating redundant information or just spelling out a scene that would have worked far better purely visually. Finally, the whole thing is badly paced. There are some moments where it looks like scenes were just cut out, which doesn’t really help.
Stalingrad is a mess. The film is technically well made, it does have many scenes that bring across the horror and confusion of the conflict, and any film with an Angelo Badalamenti score can’t be all bad. However, through trying to appeal to an international audience, it just ends up going far too Hollywood. And not in a good way. While, if you don’t think about some of the slightly wonky morality the story conveys, it could work on a spectacle level, if you’re looking for a big, dumb action movie then there’s far better out there.