Directed by: Fedor Bondarchuk || Produced by: Alexander Rodnyanksy, Dmitriy Rudovskiy, Sergey Melkumov, Natalia Gorina, Steve Schlair
Screenplay by: Illya Tilkin, Sergey Snezhkin || Starring: Petr Fedorov, Maria Smolnikova, Dmitriy Lysenkov, Aleksey Barabash, Andrey Smolyakov, Yanina Studilina, Vladmir Kurlovich, Thomas Kretschmann, Heiner Lauterbach
Music by: Angelo Badalamenti || Cinematography by: Makism Osadchiy || Edited by: Natalia Gorina || Country: Russia || Language: Russian, German
Running Time: 131 minutes
One of the biggest reasons why I’m fascinated by Bollywood more than any other foreign film industry is its comparison to Hollywood. That may sound like a strange reason to like a particular national film culture, given how most cinephiles who look for cinema beyond mainstream American blockbusters seek out cinema they believe is as different as possible from, reactive, or antithetical to the American norm. Those disillusioned with Tinseltown tend to go the hipster route, looking for something different and decidedly un-American.
In a lot of ways, India’s Hindi hits are quite different than Hollywood’s — they’re usually much longer, they’re almost all musicals, they’re more melodramatic, and they’re stricter with respect to sexuality and violence. That being said, in many more ways they’re almost identical: They’re both major pop culture factories of high-concept, mass-marketed blockbusters, their movies tend to be loud and exciting and colorful, they’ve both perfected and epitomize movie crowd-pleasers, and they’re both the dominant cinematic cultural phenomena in their respective countries. I love Bollywood so much because, despite being so different at times (to me, as an American), it’s really quite comparable to my favorite native film culture when you stop to analyze them both, break them down, and compare their inner workings. Like Hollywood, Bollywood thrives on action, movement, romance, and excitement; they rarely produce “Oscar bait,” though they’re also full of pop culture garbage and cinematic fluff; more importantly, I love watching Bollywood because I find it so fascinating to watch a mainstream blockbuster in foreign setting. It’s like watching my own Hollywood, but through a different lens, and I find that incredibly entertaining.
Which brings us to 2013’s Stalingrad, Russia’s first modern blockbuster and its first ever production shot in IMAX and IMAX 3D. The film is a semi-nationalist retelling of the infamous Battle of Stalingrad in which Soviet troops engaged Nazi occupiers in the single bloodiest battle in human history; over two million people died in the five-month conflict that ended in a decisive Soviet victory, including over one million Soviet troops and civilians, so naturally the setting is ripe for epic storytelling and Russian pride.
Some critics and news outlets have referred to the film as Russia’s version of Saving Private Ryan (1998), and that’s kind of an appropriate comparison, but there’s more to the analogy than that. On the one hand, Stalingrad fits the epic blockbuster bill perfectly: It’s a relatively straightforward, patriotic action film that features glorious visuals, great sound design, ripe character drama, some semi-descent CGI effects (far better than any anything Bollywood’s ever done), and of course it concerns a big historical event in World War II. Sounds pretty epic to me.
Then again, the scale of the actual story and much of the action we see is pretty low-key and subdued compared to even an average American blockbuster. The action in Stalingrad comes in short, controlled bursts rather than full-scale, ambitious battle scenes; in fact, there are only a few minutes of large forces fighting together in the whole film; most of the movie concerns the down-time of a small Russian squad holding a small urban outpost while the larger conflict rages around them. This was likely due to budgetary restrictions (the film cost roughly $30 million), compared to another foreign epic, China’s $80 million Red Cliff (2008-2009) that feels much, much bigger in concept and breadth.
In terms of both epic scale, violence, and especially screenwriting depth (story, themes, characterizations, arcs, etc.) Stalingrad pales in comparison to its Spielbergian counterpart, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an admirable, exciting war film on its own terms. While the story isn’t paced the best and none of its characters are too complicated, the Russian heroes are likable and distinguishable enough from each other to make the battles emotionally engaging. Surprisingly, the film also takes time to humanize and extensively flesh out a Nazi officer character, played by Thomas Kretschmann, in what is ironically the second time the man has acted as a Nazi in a movie titled Stalingrad.
While this attempt to humanize the enemy forces and not totally offend German audiences is admirable, it ultimately doesn’t add a whole lot to the story’s depth and is actually one of the major faults of the film. While Kretschmann himself is good, his character doesn’t have a very interesting arc and his relationship with a Russian civilian, Yanina Studilina, isn’t terribly captivating. The film is in many ways constructed of various subplots that don’t always pay off, so in that way the film may not be too straightforward.
In many ways though, this inconsistent writing is another similarity to American and Indian blockbusters. Though many of the latter are exciting, good-looking, and fun, most Hollywood and Bollywood blockbusters have only serviceable screenplays at best. Stalingrad fits that mediocre to descent writing score just fine.
As for the action itself, Stalingrad benefits from many great (as well as occasional not-so-great) digital effects that, combined with the film’s amazing picture quality and sound design, make the bloody but surprisingly low-key battle scenes quite fun. If you’re looking for a Blu-Ray to test out the quality of your brand spanking new HDTV, this is as good as any.
Then again, it’s a shame that Stalingrad doesn’t have more vicious action scenes and high-octane shootouts given how amazing its production values are. I keep getting the feeling while watching this movie that the filmmakers were scrapping for cash, as each action setpiece is gloriously shot and endowed with gratuitous slow-motion, 300 (2007) style; however, as soon as battles threaten to grow to truly epic proportions, the scenes end. In a way, I respect director Fedor Bondarchuk for not directing beyond his means nor CGIing absolutely everything out of laziness (though that would’ve broke the budget too…), but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see some Saving Private Ryan-caliber shit in the greatest military battle in history.
If you’re curious about delving into a Russian propaganda war piece, I’d say go for it given Stalingrad’s sheer entertainment value. Though it’s very patriotic, it’s surprisingly not very nationalist, nor is it ever hard to root against the freaking Nazis, for God’s sake. And again, as an American, I can respect passionate patriotism in any national context, even when it’s not my own. Though it’s writing is merely on par with an average Hollywood blockbuster, it’s nowhere near as shaky or overly long as your average Bollywood romance, and it looks far better to boot. That’s good enough for me.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDTION: Stalingrad looks amazing despite a few questionable frames of CGI here and there, and its amazing sound combines with its deft picture quality to justify those endless super-slow-motion ninja moves. Though its pacing and emotional impact are just acceptable as a whole, its characters are well acted and likable. The Soviet squad’s relationship with civilian Maria Smolnikova has heart.
— However… Kretschmann’s character never ties into the primary Russian storyline the way it should; the film isn’t terribly well paced in its second half; many characters are forgettable, and no one stretches beyond their archetype.
? Hey Putin, wanna watch a movie with me?