By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | February 13, 2023 |
By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | February 13, 2023 |
A week, change and 80 years ago, the Battle of Stalingrad came to an end after roughly 160 days of fighting, the first and most unequivocal military catastrophes for Nazi Germany. Suffice it to say, Stalingrad is when the Soviet people began asserting their existence against a totalitarian regime eviler than their own. It’s the story from which foundational myths are born.
However, when compared to an event as small as the sinking of the Titanic, the Battle of Stalingrad hasn’t become its own subdivision of the cultural industry, even in the USSR and its mangled follow-up. Nevertheless, the name Stalingrad has its own gravity field, with three very different movies titled “Stalingrad,” all released within the last 35 years, each one reflecting something very particular about the time and place in which they were made. There is also a movie from 1949 called The Battle of Stalingrad, but I chose to skip that one because it’s probably a Stalinist jerkfest.
Stalingrad (1989/1990) by Yuri Ozerov.
Produced in the waning days of the Soviet Union and under the auspices of Gorvachev’s Perestroika period, the film was a co-production between the US and the USSR, involving Quincy Jones out of all people, with Powers Boothe portraying General Vasily Chuikov, a concession to its Hollywood financiers.
Stalingrad 1989 is perhaps the most conventional of the three. Though still made in the spirit of propaganda, this movie has more in common with Western World War II epics such as A Bridge Too Far or The Battle of Britain, starring an ensemble cast portraying everything from ground soldiers and civilians, to spy networks and major historical figures. It is also pretty dull.
To be fair, I could only find a crappy upload on Mosfilm’s Russian-language YouTube channel, using crappy automated subtitles. It’s still dull. It basically recaps the events, with Stalin as a thoughtful leader, neglecting to show the entire scale of the suffering. It does show the Soviet soldiers with some nuance, for example, portraying the arrogant but brave nature of Leonid Khrushchev (Andrey Smolyakov), son of Nikita. But then it portrays Soviet Women Volunteers as beautiful ditzes. They are still redeemed … by dying heroically, holding off the Wehrmacht for a while.
Stalingrad 1989 is a film that, in trying to satisfy a Warner Bros and a Mosfilm, works as a glorified Sparknotes to the Battle of Stalingrad. Better watch a documentary.
Stalingrad (1993) by Joseph Vilsmaier.
Out of these three movies, it isn’t even close, Stalingrad 1993 is the best across the board, the only one that is properly a thoughtful work of art, and ironically, it’s a German film.
In many ways, this Stalingrad is a spiritual predecessor to 2022’s All Quiet on the Western Front, as well as a successor to the novel itself. The movie follows four German soldiers, still riding high after victories in North Africa. They are soon deployed to Stalingrad, and without missing a beat, Vilsmaier shoves us straight into cruelty. Not just the cruelty of the battle itself or the one exercised against POWs and civilians. It is a specific cruelty within the Wehrmacht itself, up and down the chain of command, of people that have lost any semblance of humanity, even among comrades. And when they do show humanity, it is punished, like when the aristocratic Lt. von Witzland (Thomas Kretschmann) complains about the treatment of POWs, or it is twisted, like when they force a doctor -at gunpoint, to treat a wounded comrade.
Stalingrad 1993 flails a bit during its last thirty minutes. Nevertheless, Vilsmaier creates a searing indictment on the entirety of Nazi Germany’s occupying forces. The movie exposes the collective blame of the Wehrmacht, all of which brutalized the civilian population, all of which took part in the Holocaust, all of them facing the failure of the ideas they allowed to fester. Perhaps Vilsmaier overcompensates, depicting all Soviet soldiers as brave, selfless, and dignified, but it makes sense, as a way to direct our empathy.
Stalingrad (2013) by Fyodor Bondarchuk
Made on a budget of $30 million dollars, it is one of the most expensive films in Russian (or Soviet) history, and until very recently, the most successful at the box office. Like all spectacle films in the early 2010s, it was shot in 3D. Because nothing says “remember the soldier’s sacrifice” like seeing burning Soviet soldiers coming out of the screen, or a Heinkel bomber crashing. Or the bullet traces and blood squirts … It is the worst of the bunch.
The movie is narrated by a Russian Search & Rescue operator, deployed to Japan after 2011’s earthquake. He tells the story of his “five fathers” to a trapped German tourist: Five soldiers who, during the Battle of Stalingrad, protected her mother Katya (Maria Smolnikova), an orphaned teenager living in the ruins of her former building, now a key defensive position. On the other side of the street, the bitter and cynical Captain Peter Kahn (Thomas Kretschmann again) is tasked with taking over the building. He keeps Masha (Yanina Studilina), a young Russian woman, as a sex slave. Eventually, everybody sacrifices themselves for Katya, taking Kahn’s unit with them.
Stalingrad 2013 is plagued by the syndrome of copying Hollywood director, something very common when non-English language films get big budgets. Bondarchuk shamelessly copies and overuses Zach Snyder’s slo-mo fights, which for a “realistic” historical epic, are completely out of place, making the entire narrative feel … cheap, another overwrought Hollywood VFX fest. (TW; SA) The sickest moment is a scene using the same slo-mo melodrama to show Kahn raping Masha. It ruins even the sweet and nuanced moments, like when the “five fathers” celebrate Katya’s birthday.
Russian films in the Putin era combine the worst of every world: The mindless, empty-calorie spectacle of middling Hollywood blockbusters; the uncritical, imperialistic propaganda of the Soviet Union and the reactionary, impossible men and women of Putin’s brand of fascism. Fyodor Bondarchuk’s film epitomize this trend, and the saddest part is that he is the son of Sergei Bondarchuk. For reference, imagine if Brett Ratner was the son of Stanley Kubrick.
Now that Putin is doing on Ukraine what Hitler did on Ukraine and the USSR, with similar results, what does that do to the sacrifice of millions of Soviet people, actually preventing Nazis from taking over most of the world? Because I’ll be real, I don’t think those stories can be told in Putin’s Russia, not with nuance, not with honesty, not without improper spectacle. But who can be true to them, who can tell their stories? Because we need to hear them more often, to remind us that there is still heroic humanity in Russia, one they share with the other former Soviet countries, one that’s been shut-off down right now.
Alberto Cox would like to mention that if the title sounds grand, it’s an allusion to Vasily Grossman’s novel set in Stalingrad, Life & Fate. There’s apparently a great mini-series adaptation from 2012, but he can find a single way to watch it, legally. Also, f*ck Enemy at the Gates.