When I first saw the trailer for what was called “Stalingrad 3D,” I was equal parts stoked and nervous. On the one hand, fuck yeah, Stalingrad! I’m not the biggest WW2 nut out there, I’m more of a Napoleonics guy for reasons I’ll get to eventually. However, I am indeed damn hard for anything related to the WW2 Eastern Front, or Great Patriotic War to Russophiles. Of course, Paul may disagree with me here, but I find it downright refreshing to see a narrative other than AMERICA/DEMOCRACY FUCK YEAH! I mean, it’s more right that not (at least the democracy part), but as a movie-goer, history buff and free-thinker, I’ve always been eager to look at different perspectives. I couldn’t be the only one who rooted for the Empire in Star Wars. Damn Rebels trying to restore the aristocratic rights of the Jedi…grrr….where was I?
Right, “Stalingrad.” The trailer made me damn excited; I was thinking like red banners flying, conscripts charging, a blood-soaked, peak-capped Commissar extolling the virtues of Communism, Stalin, “Not a step backwards,” the judicious use of the word “Comrade,” all that jazz. That did make me a bit nervous, too. I heard some rumblings about a Russian “300,” which was cool, yes, but also kinda problematic. Black-white, good-evil stories bore me to shit. Again, poor Death Star workers and all that. The trailer itself seemed to promise a more thoughtful movie, which I was wondering about. It’s war, dammit! Stalingrad! Bloodiest battle in history! I don’t want that mucked up with feels, except for love of the Motherland.
So I had no single idea what to expect going in to Stalingrad. A chest-thumping war epic or a mere foreign-language feel-fest? To the disappointment of some of you, the answer is the latter, but the feels are worth it, though not without problems.
The movie starts, surprisingly, in Japan right after the horrific earthquake of 2011. We find out that the tale about Stalingrad is a framing device, a story told to a group of trapped German tourists to lift their spirits. Thinking about it now, it does seem rather odd, but my first reaction was one of curiousity. In the war-ravaged Stalingrad we are slowly introduced to the main characters: the Nazi Captain Kahn, the Soviet Scout-Captain Gromov, the Stalingrad resident Katya, the four soldiers alongside Gromov who take over her house and Kahn’s forced war lover Masha. Things do certainly take their time setting up. We are not introduced to the main dynamic of Gromov and his fellow Russians protecting Katya’s house from Kahn and the Nazi troops under his command while he is conflicted over Masha until about 20 minutes into the film, and the details of the characters, their goals and lives are only slowly revealed. Ultimately, the soldiers on both sides must combat their own feelings for their respective women alongside those of the war.
“Stalingrad” is indeed a slow film, a personal one. It is not a war movie in the style of Hollywood or Eisenstein or even WW2 propaganda. It is a more modern, “indie” take, focused on the individual characters and struggles of soldiers and civilians. And as much as I would have liked to see an unironic depiction of a charging horde of the Red Army against the Nazi invaders, this softer, quieter take on WW2 was actually quite refreshing. Wars have always been fought by individuals after all. And in truth, this was the movie the trailer was promoting, though not the title.
Now does “Stalingrad” serve its goal of a personal war movie effectively? Eh, sort of. A good part of the problem is the language barrier. I would probably be more attached to these characters if they weren’t speaking in subtitles. As you can probably see above, I could not keep the names of the five Russian soldiers straight. Had their introductions and arcs not been so drawn out and clunky, they would have probably made a greater impact, more important since their arcs are more important than the purely military ones.
Indeed, the fight scenes here are very far from memorable, not helped by the weird combination of Zach-Snyder-esque filters, a washed out color palatte, and a dark look not at all helped by the 3D glasses. Battles are hard to follow, contain largely unnecessary slowdown effects and probably more knives that a WW2 movie should really have.
So is “Stalingrad” worth seeing? 2014 is looking to be a much better movie year than 2013. If you’re a hardcore WW2 buff and are into more than simple action, it’s worth a look at least. But if you want to jst get the testosterone pumping…well, there’s 300: Rise of an Empire…
And if you’re really in the mood for some imagery of a blood-stailed Hammer and Sicle being used for “good”…just look at this article about the Crimean Crisis: http://time.com/12563/belbek-crimea-ukraine-russia/