Stalingrad is essentially the Russian equivalent of Pearl Harbor in terms of both historical context and as a kind of appropriate comparison between this box office hit in its home country and a sort of North American counterpart. Director Fedor Bondarchuk’s attempts to tell a serious version of the most costly battle on Russian soil during World War II is about as historically accurate as Paul WS Anderson’s recent destruction of Pompeii or Quentin Tarantino rewriting history in Inglorious Basterds, which given how gory, relentless, and over the top this thing feels shouldn’t be a problem. Bondarchuk’s biggest problem is that there’s an earnest sense of seriousness that’s incredibly unnerving and hard to swallow. It’s like the Bad Boys 2 version of Michael Bay making Pearl Harbor but with the same dogged sense to do justice by the soldiers that died for their country.
Bondarchuk focuses predominantly on one band of Russian soldiers that have holed themselves up in the last strategically defensible building still standing in the titular city amid a brutal battle with the Nazi army. They are determined to stick together and hold the line as long as they can, often remarking how inevitable their fates ultimately are, while they protect a woman that they have rescued. Meanwhile, one German commander that the audience is never supposed to have any sympathy for is carrying on with a Russian woman that he’s essentially raped and who now loves him. Neither adds anything except to put a face to a greater evil that apparently wasn’t bad enough when massacring thousands of Russian troops and killing off other races.
It would be a backhanded slap to call Bondarchuk out on his own patriotism since that seems to entirely be the point. It’s all about how brave, valiant, and unwavering the Russians were on that day in the face of almost certain death. Maybe post-Sochi Olympics it isn’t the most relatable sentiment, but buried within Stalingrad’s desire to convey a grim sense of despair and malaise, there’s a great story that could be told. The problem is that Bondarchuk has found a way to combine misanthropy and video game violence in such a way here that it doesn’t even feel like a recruitment video for the Russian army. It’s terrifying in the wrong kinds of ways because of just how in love it is with its own mean streak.
Voiceovers constantly espouse how even when a soldier was brave even in death how some of them made mistakes in their lives that made it a good thing that they died. People who die to save others are criticized for not being around to die at better times to save even more civilians and comrades. Nothing is ever good enough for the film’s narrator (an older man during wartime now relating his story to a trapped German tourist caught under rubble following the 2010 Japanese earthquake), and it seems like nothing is ever good enough for Bondarchuk.
Every head shot (of which there are many, punctuated with Frank Miller sounding dialogue about how they all deserve it from both narrator and soldiers) is captured in loving slow motion. Bullets rip through flesh for what feels like an eternity before exploding out the other end of a body. If there’s a world record for most people on screen on fire for the longest period of time, Stalingrad has to at least double that. Compared to something like Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down – unabashedly patriotic war films that never shy away from harrowing violence – Bondarchuk’s work feels like an aimless slog that doesn’t do his country, the cause, or the memory of the fallen any real favours.
Stalingrad begs to be taken seriously because it’s dealing with serious material. Then it goes about showing it in the least serious way possible. It’s a great example of someone wanting to have their cake and eat it, too, and then the person demands and berates you into giving them an award for eating the cake in such a forceful manner. But it certainly looks great in IMAX. Maybe not in 3D, though, sadly, since the film is often too murky and smoky for the technology to really add any major depth. It would have been the only depth the film would have had in the first place.