Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk
“Stalingrad” is an interesting film and subject matter, on multiple levels, although much like the recent “The Monuments Men” it may actually be more interesting to read about and discuss than to watch. But it’s also likely to attract some film fans who find some of the unique aspects of the production appealing. For example, it’s the first non-American film shot in IMAX format, the first Russian film shot entirely in 3D, and it has broken box office records in Russia.
The plot centers around the Battle of Stalingrad and the Russian military’s attempt to recapture the city from the Germans. But rather than take a macro look at that entire battle or campaign, the film centers at a micro level on the struggle to control a single strategically important building near the shore of the Volga, which separated the bulk of the Russian forces from the occupied city.
This is an interesting choice to make as it makes the film more about personal struggles in this microcosm of the war in general rather than conveying the larger struggle. This probably works better for Russian audiences than for many others as this was a critical moment in WWII and is well understood and celebrated at the national level.
Put simply, the Battle of Stalingrad and the campaign it was a part of, was one of the bloodiest periods of the entire war, or any war. Almost two million people were killed, wounded, or went missing – the majority of those on the German side. With approximately 1.15 million casualties and the loss of enormous amounts of equipment and other resources, it was a scale of defeat that Germany couldn’t sustain without also significantly diminishing their ability to fight in Western Europe. However, it’s also a battle that didn’t involve other Allied forces and so it’s overlooked and forgotten by many others despite the effect it had on the rest of the war and its ultimate conclusion.
In fairness, it may be that the larger conflict is simply too big to realistically capture and depict, and this isn’t the first film that has focused on a small detail of the battle. 2001’s “Enemy at the Gates” is the story of two opposing snipers in the midst of the fighting.
In “Stalingrad,” a small group of Russians soldiers and sailors find themselves in the unenviable position of capturing a residential building that sits between a German army unit and the river. In the building, they find one lone civilian survivor, a young woman who has watched her family and her neighbors die in the extended fighting. She’s not only staying in place because of her connection to it but because she literally has nowhere else to go. She’s like a proxy for the country these men are fighting to preserve in a classic battle between an invading army, fighting for their leader, for political dominance and for perceived glory, and a people willing to fight at all costs to retain their homeland. It’s a lesson that Russians and others have learned to their own disadvantage on battlefields in Afghanistan, Vietnam, and elsewhere.
At the same time, we see another local woman who is the object of affection, or at least blind lust, for a German officer. He’s alone, frustrated in life and in battle, and she reminds him of his wife. She is hated by the other Russians, who consider her a whore for her relationship with him, despite the fact that he’s using her against her will. It’s not a unique perspective but it focuses attention on the multitude of experiences of those who get dragged into wars and conflict in ways other than in uniforms and behind weapons.
The problem is that the film does little to fill in the larger details for an audience for whom the Battle of Stalingrad is just another unknown chapter in history. It’s well made and technically quite excellent, with touching performances, and it was Russia’s official entry in the foreign language category for this year’s Academy Awards. But it feels incomplete – as if it requires a certain amount of background knowledge to fully appreciate – something that Russian audiences would have received in school but others are likely to lack.
As such, and despite its strengths, it’s a difficult film to recommend to people who aren’t history buffs or specifically drawn towards war movies. There are scenes that bear some resemblance to scaled down but similarly awful beach landings like those we’ve seen in such films as “Saving Private Ryan,” where being first off the boats led to almost certain death, and at times there’s a slight “Black Hawk Down” vibe among this group of trapped soldiers. But the film struggles to convey similarly weighty emotional involvement, as devoid as it is of context. It feels as though the film needed some onscreen captions to provide basic statistics for non-Russian audiences.
Ironically, the film is bookended by scenes in which we’re shown people trapped after a natural disaster in Japan – and the story of the film is being told by an older Russian relief worker, to keep five young people calm as they wait to be dug out of the rubble. This more modern scenario is likely to resonate more with many audiences simply for its relative familiarity. “Stalingrad” is a good film that will struggle to find an appreciative audience and it would probably benefit from a simple history pamphlet, an informative introduction, or from having one or two previews removed from the run-up to the film and replaced with a projected copy of the Wikipedia page describing the Battle of Stalingrad. Without that, there’s really no way for most viewers to appreciate the extreme stakes involved and why the characters would have behaved the way they behaved. And that’s a problem.
“Non-stop” is a better film than the trailer might suggest. Where the trailer seems to make the film a very straightforward and simple in-flight battle between an air marshal and a killer, the film actually incorporates a back story and multiple characters that are flawed enough to make things interesting. And, following the outpouring of grief as well as the “what if?” scenarios associated with the 9/11 hijackings, an international flight has become a uniquely complicated location for this kind of showdown.
It’s easy to make comparisons with Liam Neeson’s “Taken” films – but this film has more in common with the original “Die Hard” formula of an action film set within the confines of a single location, with a plane being even more restricted than a building or an airport. It’s not great but it succeeds in delivering some decent action, intriguing dilemmas, a little political commentary about safety in modern society, and an escalation of tension towards the end of the film. And that’s likely to be enough for many action film audiences. It’s certainly a whole lot more cohesive and satisfying than last week’s “3 Days to Kill” and “Pompeii” – although that may be an example of damning with faint praise.