Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Alternate Title:  The Thin, Extra-Red Line

One sentence synopsis:      Five Russian soldiers must defend a ruined apartment building and the young woman who lives there from overwhelming German assault during the Battle of Stalingrad.

Things Havoc liked: Stalingrad was the greatest battle in human history, and yet has never gotten the proper cinematic treatment it deserves.  Enemy at the Gates, the only major Hollywood attempt to portray the battle, was an uneven film with some qualities but more flaws, and outside of that, the battle has only appeared in localized German and Russian indie films, usually as part of some kind of Platoon-esque mediation on the horrors of war.  It serves its purpose in this regard, certainly, but the epic scope of the battle has still eluded filmakers, perhaps because it is simply too immense to fit on even a cinematic canvas.  Nevertheless, when I heard that a major Russian production was underway to try and do Stalingrad justice, I was excited to see the results, as if anyone could possibly get Stalingrad right, I would expect it to be them.

What strikes me immediately upon watching a historical film is the degree of accuracy that the filmmakers have sought.  Accuracy comes in many forms.  It can be scrupulous adherence to the historical facts of the period presented such as in Kingdom of Heaven, or a thematic and stylistic fidelity as evidenced by the original 300.  Stalingrad's creators seem to have sought for a mixture of the two, blending careful adherence to the gritty details of the Battle itself with a larger thematic sense of what it was that the Soviet Union was engaged in.  The filmmakers know their stuff, in terms of the details of the war and the soldiers.  They know that for all his omnipresence in Soviet society, Stalin was the last thing on anyone's minds while actually on the front line (neither were the dreaded commissars).  They know about the unspoken codes that exerted themselves in Stalingrad as in all protracted battles, and half-distilled propaganda lines such as "there is no land behind the Volga" (watchword of the Soviet 62nd Army).  They know how the Russian Ppsh-41 submachine gun worked, how the soldiers handled it, and why they did not simply spray wildly with it even at close range.  They know that German stick-grenades were concussion bombs, not fragmentation, and that soldiers often withstood their blasts simply by laying prone on the floor.  They even know that the dense Russian greatcoats were somewhat fire resistant, and that soldiers would often plunge right through sheets of flame wrapped in them, confident that they could shed them on the other side before being cooked to death.

Most war movies are, in some way, exercises in propaganda, particularly when coming from states with a, shall we say, "elevated" history of such things.  Stalingrad dispenses with such things immediately.  The only actor in the film recognizable to my western eyes is The Pianist and Downfall's Thomas Kretschmann, who plays Captain Kahn, arguably the most well-developed character in the film, a German soldier and war hero who becomes obsessed with a Russian woman who proves to be a dead ringer for his deceased wife.  Kretschmann, who coincidentally starred as a German Captain in a movie called "Stalingrad" twenty-one years ago, lives out the movie in some kind of purgatorial hell, condemned to attack the same house over and over and over again while trying to keep his "kept" woman (their relationship is ambivalent to say the least) from being murdered by either the Germans (who are massacring civilians with impunity) or the Russians (who are more than willing to execute 'collaborators' regardless of their circumstances).

But the main characters are, of course, Russian, specifically five soldiers who wind up defending an apartment building from repeated German attack, as well as a young woman whose home it is, and who tries to continue to live amidst her dead neighbors and ruined home even as war sweeps over it again and again.  The scenario is a real one, inspired no doubt by the famous "Pavlov's House", scene of fighting for weeks on end in the real war.  Five soldiers is just about the right number, frankly, as the movie is given time enough to characterize each one, with standouts being Gromov (Pyotr Fyodorov), the de facto leader (none of the soldiers seem to give rank much of a thought in the heat of battle), a hardened combat veteran of every major battle of the 1940s, and Nikiforov (Alexey Barabash), a classical tenor and local celebrity, converted by war into a lethal, silent killer.  But the focus of all the soldiers' attention is Katya (Maria Smolnikova), a civilian survivor who winds up the focus of all five soldiers' attention as they battle for the house.  Yet rather than turn the story into a typical Hollywood love story wherein one soldier becomes her romantic interest, perhaps at the expense of one or more of the others, this film has the soldiers treating Katya, likely the first woman they've been in close proximity to in a year and a half, as a figure almost of reverence, perhaps a representation in their own minds of loved ones at home, or some idealized version of Russia herself.  Cheesy though this may sound in text, the film portrays this dynamic sermon-straight, with a sincerity that is frankly convincing.  Men under the stresses of battle do not always revert to animal behavior.  Some seek for any shred of human decency they can find, if only to remind themselves that something exists beyond the war.

I mentioned last week in my review of the new 300 movie that Zack Snyder's stylized action style from the original laid its mark on the films that followed it, and nowhere is that more evident than here, a non-Hollywood Russian war production.  War movies since Saving Private Ryan (at least the good ones) have not sought to glamorize the experience of killing in war, instead focusing on the gritty, bloody realism of the participants.  But in a battle such as Stalingrad, in the midst of an incinerated city, fighting a tide of evil, Director Fedor Bondarchuk seems to have decided that the horrors of war will attend to themselves, and fills his movie's combat with glorious, expertly choreographed slaughter.  By knife and grenade, sub-machine gun and pistol, the soldiers in this film kill one another in poetic, artistic ways, replete with cinematic trickery and well-placed slowdowns, sparing neither the violence nor the blood attendant in such activities.  War is indeed hell, the film seems to be indicating, and yet there is an awful majesty to it as well, particularly given the stakes involved, and when Russian soldiers storm the bluffs above the river, covered in burning oil like demons from hell, and charge into machine gun fire to throw the Germans back, it's rather hard to argue that the film isn't showing the war with sufficient reverence.  The spectacle of this film's violence, though not so over the top to invite laughs, cements the central thrust of what actually happened on the banks of the Volga in the autumn and winter of 1942.

Things Havoc disliked: Stalingrad is an extremely [i]Russian[/i] film, by which I mean the style of cinema that has been a hallmark of Russia since the days of Sergei Eisenstein.  Big, elaborate showpieces are separated temporally by lengthy, almost willfully restrained sequences filled with characters locked in emotional turmoil staring at one another or out of windows, whispering dialogue that takes... seventeen.... seconds.... between.... words.  As such, it shouldn't really be a surprise that for a movie supposedly about the greatest battle in human history, this film is [i]awfully [/i]slow, particularly the second half, wherein the movie seems to forget its a war film at all, pulling out almost all of the action in favor of more character moments and scenery.  I don't mind a humanized war film, with a battle the size of Stalingrad it's almost mandatory, but the film begins, I fear, to lose track of just what it's supposed to be about, neglecting the battle until it's time for the movie to end, in favor of some kind of artistic statement on the purity of love, or something.  I'm not entirely sure myself.

There's also the other facet typical of Russian films (as it is with Russian literature), in that narrative tightness has never been a particularly important element of the equation.  Russian movies and books think nothing of simply dropping subplots, characters, or entire thematic constructs whenever they are no longer convenient to the writer, without feeling any particular need to resolve such elements.  Consequently, the film introduces characters to us who are then never seen after the first ten minutes, or elements of people's backstories that we assume are being set up for later, only to never be given any form of payoff.  Perhaps this was intentional, or perhaps this is the mark of a film that had to be edited rather heavily, but given the slow pace mentioned above, this lead me to start wondering, during the last half of the film, if the movie actually had any idea at all of where it was going with any of this.

Finally, one of the issues that afflicts a film that chooses to go the accurate route in dealing with history is that it's no good to only be strenuously accurate in [i]part[/i] of the movie.  As the film comes to its foreordained end, the filmmakers' grasp of the reality of Stalingrad seems to desert them, as tanks line up in ranks so tight that they would be unable to maneuver or turn their turrets, the better to present an imposing sight for the audience, and hundreds and hundreds of men are routed with almost contemptuous ease by the actions of half a dozen Russians, none of whom ever seem to engage more than one or two German soldiers.  Moreover, I hate to nitpick, but if you had an airstrike available to you on command, and saw what could not be less than an entire regiment of enemy forces forming up in packed ranks in the open to attack you, would you call that airstrike in on them, or wait until they had already entered the building you were endeavoring to defend?

Final thoughts:  It's always hard to criticize a foreign film, as the conventions of cinema are simply not the same from one place to another, and while it's somewhat churlish to criticize a Russian movie for failing to be American, the film ultimately has to entertain me if it wishes for my wholehearted recommendation.  How much of Stalingrad's failings are due to its place of origin and how much are actual errors I cannot say, but the movie, ultimately, had me wishing by the end that it would simply get on with it.  There are good elements, even good sequences in Stalingrad, particularly the surprisingly-rare battle scenes, done with a style and panache that would make most of the film's Hollywood contemporaries green with envy.  But it's a very difficult task to hang a two and a half hour film on twenty minutes of action, especially when all of the action is front-loaded.

My suggestion?  Catch the battle sequences on Youtube, and otherwise wait for the next try.  Stalingrad was the biggest battle in the history of the world.  Filmmakers will get it right some day.

Final Score:  5/10

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